Is there anything Barbara Hannigan can’t do? Singer, conductor, mentor... she can add dancer to her long list of accomplishments, as she waltzes, minuets and tangos her way across the conductor’s podium. In the first concert of a two-week residency with the London Symphony Orchestra, Hannigan presents an eclectic selection of dance suites. What links Haydn to Weill, Copland to Offenbach, she seems to suggest, is a shared rhythmic vitality and sense of fun – and as much fun was had onstage as in the audience.

Barbara Hannigan
© Mark Allan | LSO/Barbican

Aaron Copland’s Music for the Theatre is, frankly, not his most inspired score, but served as an effective curtain raiser. We were immediately catapulted into Jazz Age America, with bold, assertive brass interjections and lush strings. Hannigan and the orchestra took a while to settle in, with the sumptuousness of the strings muddying the jazzy syncopations. Full marks, though, to Chi-Yun Mo’s louche clarinet solo in the second movement, vulgar in the best way. The fourth movement, a Shostakovich-esque demonic Scherzo marked “Burlesque”, was more well-behaved than its name would suggest, though the mighty wall of sound produced by the lower brass was thrilling. Hannigan and her orchestra were at their best in the central Interlude, a post-impressionistic haze of strings and glockenspiel with wind, brass and piano solos melting in and out of focus.

Haydn’s Symphony no. 90 in C major is one of his sunniest works, full of zest and wit. A favourite of Simon Rattle, it’s a piece that the LSO knows intimately well and perform as if it were chamber music. Hannigan brought out the operatic nature of the opening movement, with its sighing strings and rapid-fire coloratura. Some suspect horn intonation aside, it was a precise performance full of dynamic contrast. The middle movements, essentially wind divertimenti in disguise, showed off the LSO’s outstanding wind section, from bassoonist Daniel Jemison’s subtle ornaments in each reiteration of the second movement’s theme to the fluid agility of the Trio’s oboe solo. But it was the finale that really took off, racing into the movement with thrilling virtuosity. Hannigan delighted in Haydn’s joke, bounding offstage after the false ending and leaving the orchestra in the capable hands of leader Carmine Lauri to finish off the performance. 

Barbara Hannigan conducts the London Symphony Orchestra
© Mark Allan | LSO/Barbican

The second half of the performance allowed everyone to let their hair down, immediately raising the temperature with a romp through Belle Époque Paris. Arranged into a ballet by Manuel Rosenthal, Gaîté Parisienne is a pastiche of Offenbach’s greatest hits and makes for a delightfully frothy orchestral showpiece. From the twinkling piccolo roulades from Mesdames de la Halle to the riotous percussion in La Vie parisienne, the LSO seemed to have every bit as much fun as the audience. Hannigan stepped off the podium to join mezzo-soprano Fleur Barron in an evocative performance of the famous Barcarolle, Hannigan’s silvery soprano blending gorgeously with Barron’s plum-hued mezzo. 

Fleur Barron and Barbara Hannigan
© Mark Allan | LSO/Barbican

Hannigan had further opportunity to show off her singer-conductor skills in a brief selection of Kurt Weill songs. It’s hard to imagine a venue less reminiscent of a Weimar revue than the cavernous Barbican, and likely explains the necessity of amplification. The balance wasn’t quite right, with the vocals sounding far too bright and resonant – it was a somewhat disconcerting experience to see Hannigan singing onstage while her voice was piped in from all corners. Despite these acoustical issues, Hannigan offered her customary artistry, bringing an edgy cynicism to the tango rhythms of Youkali and a knowing schmaltz to Lost in the Stars. Bill Elliott’s expressionistic orchestral arrangements, somewhere between Korngold’s film scores and Berg’s Lyric Suite, were an absolute gift to the orchestra, achieving an unsettling beauty. 

****1