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Volume 20 Issue 5 - February 2015

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  • February
  • Toronto
  • Jazz
  • Musical
  • Symphony
  • Theatre
  • Arts
  • Soprano
  • Composer
  • Orchestra
  • Hannigan
  • Ascending
Volume 20 Issue 5

Barbara Hannigan Being

Barbara Hannigan Being the Music WENDALYN BARTLEY “As soon as I walk into rehearsal and listen to the orchestra for 15 seconds, immediately I’m right inside this large body making sound and breathing.” Being the music. This is how Canadian-born soprano and now conductor Barbara Hannigan describes her approach to performing. Two questions come to mind: How does one do this? And what are the ingredients needed to so completely embody the music as to become it? George Meredith’s words from his poem The Lark Ascending that inspired Ralph Vaughan Williams’ work of the same name suggest one answer: “The song seraphically free, Of taint of personality, So pure that it salutes the suns.” Hannigan herself gives a hint when she states: “I’m happy with my performance when I know I’ve made the connection between breath and sound, when the whole body is singing.” Fourteen years ago the then Toronto-based Hannigan appeared on the cover of The WholeNote magazine. At the time she was performing the lead role in the operetta The Merry Widow and her European career was beginning to take off. Now living in Amsterdam, with bookings four to five years in advance, she is returning to Toronto as the featured performer at this year’s New Creations Festival presented by the Toronto Symphony. In three concerts scheduled between February 28 and March 7, Hannigan will be performing both Canadian and North American premieres of works by British composer George Benjamin and Danish composer Hans Abrahamsen. As is evident in that WholeNote article back in December 2000, she was already well known as a perfomer who was versatile, flexible, able to immediately grasp the music and who could sing a wide range of vocal timbres throughout an extended pitch range, something often called for by contemporary composers. She attributes this in part to her Canadian musical education – the excellent programs she experienced as a child in Nova Scotia, her classical singing training with Mary Morrison at the University of Toronto and her work with Richard Armstrong exploring the relationship between the breath, the body and the voice. She also acknowledges that her ability to penetrate deep into the heart of a piece comes from a special connection she has with music. “With most pieces I can get inside fairly quickly and find the key. It’s partly due to having done it for 25 years, but even when I was young, I loved it. That was the game I wanted to play – to get past the technical demands and go right into the dramatic aspects because that’s what carries to the audience. It’s the core of the piece that we want to hear, the expression of the composer’s soul.” Her ability to dive in and take risks was recognized early on by Morrison. “Mary always said I was driven, and I didn’t really know what that meant at the beginning. But now I know – it’s this centrifugal force that is constant. I feel that I have almost an obligation toward a lot of the repertoire I sing. Even if the piece wasn’t written for me, I know that when I sing contemporary pieces such as Claude Vivier’s Lonely Child, Quatre chants pour franchir le seuil by French composer Gérard Grisey, or Pli selon pli by Pierre Boulez (a lifetime high when I performed it with Boulez conducting in 2011), it opens doors and helps those pieces find their destiny. That’s how I feel about my work – that I’m helping those children find their life, grow into adulthood and be present in the world hopefully.” She’s so successful in this mission that she’ll be performing Vivier’s Lonely Child with the Vienna Philharmonic this coming year. “Can you imagine,” she says, enthusiastically. “The Vienna Philharmonic agreed to perform Lonely Child! Bringing this kind of repertoire to that level and to an audience not used to hearing this kind of music – to me, those are the important things.” For Hannigan, the through line in her career has been the repertoire. “I’m repertoire driven. It’s always been about what I want to sing, not where or even with whom, although that figures in very strongly now. There are certain conductors such as Esa-Pekka Salonen and Sir Simon Rattle with whom I have a very strong relationship and can suggest repertoire. In fact Rattle has become a good musical partner. About six years ago, he asked me for a wish list. That’s when I told him I wanted to do Lonely Child by Vivier. It’s always been about the repertoire.” When I asked her in our recent interview if she approached the performance of concert works and operatic roles differently, ... exploring the relationship between the breath, the body and the voice ... Elmer de Haas 8 | February 1 - March 7, 2015

she stated: “I don’t think of playing a role anymore, it’s just BEING the music. I’m being that music, whether its concert or opera. For example, last week when I was performing the opera excerpts –Three Fragments from Berg’s opera Wozzeck, and Mysteries of the Macabre from Ligeti’s opera Le Grand Macabre, I became those two characters. I didn’t play or interpret Marie or Gepopo, I just WAS them. “The act of performing has become for me an act of witnessing. Not only does this include the music as it is on the page, but also the experience of the character, my own experience, the voice of the composer, all the performers, both on stage or in the pit, and the audience. We are all involved, in this act of witnessing. It’s as if every performance is in the round, whether it’s concert or opera. I use the word witnessing because it’s like a ritual we’re involved in as opposed to a performance. Live performance is so special, it’s a sacred thing. Even if I’m feeling the stress of my day, as soon as I walk into rehearsal and listen to the orchestra for 15 seconds, immediately I’m right inside this large body making sound and breathing.” Earlier in Hannigan’s career, she worked extensively with teacher, director and performer Richard Armstrong, who began his career in the late 1960s as a member of the Roy Hart Theatre. One of the exercises Hannigan cited as playing a pivotal role in her training was Richard’s ball exercise. Imagine a group of 12 to 15 people running around the room all connected to a large Pilates ball. The one person who has possession of the ball is making a sound, while everyone else has their hands on the ball. Their job is to physically embody the sound as if they were making the sound without actually vocalizing it. When the ball gets passed to another, the new ball-holder’s body is already experiencing the sound, thus making it an effortless transition between being silent and becoming the soundmaker. Hannigan says this exercise stuck with her very strongly. “It doesn’t matter if I’ve been silent for 20 minutes, I’m still resonating with everybody else and I know who’s got the ball. I didn’t know what to call it back then, all I knew was this is the way I wanted to make music. And that’s why I started conducting. Because I was feeling so deeply the fullness with everyone, when it was suggested to me by Radio France that I should explore conducting, I thought yes, lets try.” Her conducting debut was in 2011 at the Théâtre du Châtelet in Paris where she conducted Renard by Stravinsky as master conductor Esa-Pekka Salonen sat listening in the audience. “It was a really exciting moment for me. Conducting presents a new depth of entering into the score. Now I have to be responsible – I call it the ‘parental feeling.’ As a singer I can be more childish and playful, but as a conductor I need to be an adult. I went out and did it! The next morning, the phone started ringing and it was orchestras wanting me to come and make special programs where I would sing about 30 percent of the program and conduct 70 percent.” The exciting Continues on page 69 Hannigan as Marie in Bernd Alois Zimmermann’s Die Soldaten MARLEYN-BERTOLI DUO Thursday, February 12 at 8 pm DÉNES VÁRJON Pianist Tuesday, February 17 at 8 pm GRYPHON TRIO Thursday, February 26 at 8 pm at Canadian Heritage Patrimoine canadien 416-366-7723 1-800-708-6754 order online at February 1 - March 7, 2015 | 9

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