I’ve spent a fair chunk of time this week following Barbara Hannigan’s stint as Stratton Visiting Artist in Music at the University of Toronto. I went to a lecture on Tuesday, a masterclass on Thursday and a concert yesterday. Twice already I have sat at the keyboard to try and document my impressions and failed miserably. It’s rare that I’m lost for words but Ms. Hannigan is really hard to describe. This time I shall apply myself with the sort of iron will that she exudes.
Iron will? It’s the thing that seems most striking about the woman but it’s iron will coupled to something approaching an absence of ego and coupled to an essential kindness I think. It’s a really rare combination. I’ve worked with many strong willed people; CEOs, ministers of the crown and the like. There “will” is almost always coupled with a planet sized ego and a near total indifference to people who aren’t useful to them. Classic sociopathy in fact. It’s at the core of our political and economic systems. Hannigan is not a sociopath.
She is however exceptionally determined. I imagine she might have been called “stubborn” more than once in her life. Famously she has ploughed her own furrow taking on only the work she cares about to the extent that for a very long time she couldn’t find an agent. There was, I guess, easier agenting money to be had. It’s easy to say “Well she’s the only Barbara Hannigan so she can get away with it”. But, of course, that wasn’t, in a sense, always true. There’s a real sense in which she made that freedom for herself by demanding it and refusing to compromise on it. It’s a high risk strategy and I’m not sure I would recommend it but it has worked for her.
At a macro level what I’ve just written is obvious in her career. What’s almost uncanny (it’s nearly Burns Day, can we say “weird” in the old Scots sense?) is that the same qualities are conveyed forcefully in her teaching. She has a crystalline vision of each piece that she sings and teaches and a very clear idea of how it might be made to work and she communicates that to her students. She will listen with the intensity of a retriever at a shoot and then, bam, she has her bird and she’s out of cover and going for it. And it’s often tiny things she picks up on; exactly how a note is attacked, a slight shift in the value of a vowel, presence or absence of a glottal, the weight on a schwa. But they are uncannily insightful. Like Sondra Radvanovsky teaching, one hears an immediate impact on the student’s performance but the mechanism is completely different. It’s fascinating to watch. And all through the process there’s the the unique combination of stillness, intense energy and then fully absorbed, perhaps ecstatic, movement.
So how does this play out in performance? Late yesterday afternoon I was able to hear performances by Barbara and seven of her students. I’d heard most of them in class the day before so this was going to be interesting. Barbara kicked off with Steven Philcox, at the piano. I think this was a kind of double bluff because she sang Schoenberg and I’m sure the audience looked at “Schoenberg” in their programs and expected that “modern” stuff that Ms. Hannigan is famous for but this was the intensely romantic and lyrical Four Songs , Opus 2 (think Gurrelieder). It was a really good example of how every Hannigan performance is a “whole body” thing. She flows, physically, with the music and then there’s an exquisite detail to the musical side. To take one moment of many, in Jesus Bettelt she really covered her tone on “Schenk mir Alles, was du hast, meine Seele ist nicht eitel” which in a funny sort of way sums up everything I’ve just been trying to say.
Then it was the students’ turn. Two really caught my eye. Christina Haldane sang a really intense version of the unaccompanied piece Time and the Bell have Buried the Day by Sofia Gubaidulina and later was joined by Lara Dodds–Eden for two Crumb pieces; Invocation to the Dark Angel and Approach Strong Delivress! These performances were object lessons in Barbara’s (out of Mary Morrison) constant mantra of “dare to take risks”. Fierce, passionate and right on the edge. This was hair on the back of the neck stuff from both singer and pianist. Awesome.
I was also deeply impressed by the team of Brooke Dufton and Braden young. They too sucker-punched us with the very lyrical Berg Nacht before hitting the Crumb. This time it The Night in Silence under Many a Star. Gorgeous colours from Brooke here including a truly sepulchral “O vast and well-Veil’d Death”; one of the best examples of how a small thing worked on in class can elevate a piece from competent to so much more. Brilliant use of the whole piano too from Braden. Who knew that instrument could sound like bagpipes?
Rebecca Genge and Mélisande Sinsoulier also impressed with some fine Messiaen. I particularly enjoyed Résurrection. It’s one of those OTT Catholic mystical pieces that’s so Messiaen and Genge was powerful, charged and suitably hyper-emotional. My notes say “Ecstase!” There was also a fine loud, fast, high and fearless I am the Wife of Mao Tse-Tung from Andrea Lett accompanied by the diminutive Yvonne Choi who seemed much too small to get that much sound out of a piano and some nicely articulated and lyrical Szymanowski from Alexandra Hetherington and David Eliakis.
I wanted to leave until last two performances that seemed best to exemplify what Barbara can do with a student in a short time. The first piece is the whole Anne Truelove bit from The Rake’s Progress from “No word from Tom” through the cabeletta. In class, Maeve Palmer had seemed initially a little unfocussed, perhaps unsure of how the piece sat in context. By performance time it was all “of a piece” and Maeve and her pianist Andrea van Pelt were able to give us a piece with a kind of emotional integrity and completeness that hadn’t been there at the start. Something sort of similar happened with Sydney Baedke and Gary Forbes version of David del Tredici’s The Happy Child. First up, I found this emotionally cloying and manipulative in that neo-Broadway genre of American art song that I find a bit nausea inducing. Barbara had worked with Sydney on stillness and stripping out the naturally tendency to emphasise the mood of the music. It really worked. I’m still not sure it’s ever going to be a favourite but the more straightforward presentation really brought out the contrast between the rather Rockwellesque opening lines and the weird and disturbing, repeated final lines “She can never be that urchin hurting in the cramped, cool dark, spewing up furious words everyone ignores”. Barbara’s careful attention to how to get full value out of unexpected words like “urchin” and “spewing” really helped here too.
It’s been a fascinating and thought provoking week.