Barbara Hannigan's unique and considerable talents as a passionate musician of drama and high intensity were on lively and generous display Wednesday night at Roy Thomson Hall. Hannigan, the Canadian soprano turned conductor, performed in both roles during Wednesday's concert, singing music by Luigi Nono a cappella, singing and conducting a Mozart concert aria, and acting just as conductor for orchestral showpieces by Gyorgy Ligeti and Stravinsky as well as a Haydn symphony. A challenging program, a unique performing presentation – it all added up to an entertaining and exciting night at the symphony.
In some ways, the emotional centre of the evening was its least likely number – the Mozart aria, Resta, o cara. Least likely because Hannigan is one of the leading exponents of contemporary music in the world, as evidenced by the Ligeti, Nono and Stravinsky on her program. Hannigan's glassy soprano is often considered too light for Mozart, and light it is, but what she may have lacked in sonic heft she more than made up in emotional and expressive intensity. The tragic and pathetic contours of the aria were sketched out in such perfectly dramatic and heartfelt expression that time itself seemed to stop to marvel at her artfulness. And as Hannigan expressed herself with her body as well as her voice in the Mozart, her life and gestures as a conductor appeared before us, naturally and spontaneously. We could see and feel how her conducting is an extension of her vocal performing.
Hannigan conducts the way that she sings. She has a fine ear for drama, for high contrast – of dynamics, rhythm, colour. Her music making is intense but full of life. Control and balance are essentials. These were most in evidence in the two major orchestral works on the program, Ligeti's Concert Romanesc, a very early, surprisingly tonal and accessible work, and the Stravinsky Symphony in Three Movements, composed as something of a commentary on the Second World War. Hannigan's skill in leading a very supple and responsive Toronto Symphony Orchestra shone especially in the Ligeti, where each folk melody and orchestral colour was lovingly and charmingly presented. The same emphasis on colour and timbre, as well as a fine ear for balance between the various sections of the orchestra, was evident in the Stravinsky, despite it being a far weaker piece, I think. In fact, a piece whose emotional hollowness (like so much neo-classical Stravinsky) is positively chilling and unnerving. Nonetheless, to her credit, Hannigan managed to shake some music even out of this echoing emptiness.
It takes time to develop skill as a conductor and Hannigan has only been at the game for a few years. She chooses her programs carefully so there is much repertoire for her to learn. But she has great presence on the podium, and the ability, unteachable, to inspire other musicians to bring music to life. The TSO seemed to enjoy playing for her. And, one hopes, like us, they were filled with the obvious and simple delight that a woman, not a man, was on the podium.