Celebrated soprano Barbara Hannigan made her New York conducting debut in a spirited concert of Strauss, Haydn, Debussy, Sibelius and Bartók, and she did so, in a perhaps surprising move, leading the students of the Juilliard Orchestra. There’s no lack of conducting opportunity for Hannigan, named to the Order of Canada in 2016 for her “achievements as an internationally renowned opera singer and cultural ambassador”. Hannigan will lead a number of top-rank symphony orchestras in the coming year. But she’s also shown a commitment to youth education – she is the founder of the Equilibrium Young Artists mentorship program – which may explain her interest in working with the esteemed Manhattan school.

Barbara Hannigan conducts the Juilliard Orchestra © Rachel Papo
Barbara Hannigan conducts the Juilliard Orchestra
© Rachel Papo

Whatever the reason, she seemed happy to be onstage at Alice Tully Hall Friday night. She walked out with a smile and a confidence that couldn’t be missed and launched headlong into The Dance of the Seven Veils from Strauss’ Salome, leaning forward, arching her back, moving frontward and backward on the stand. With the baton held in her right hand, she used her left just as much, along with her shoulders, cheeks and eyebrows to lead the massive, 100-strong orchestra through the heroic themes. The orchestra couldn’t have been more taut; to say they were putty in her hands would suggest too much malleability; they were hardened clay, pitched, spun, fired and glazed by the visiting maestro. And Hannigan, dressed in loose-fitting concert black slacks and tunic with open-toed sandals, appeared ready to work.

The orchestra shrunk by about a third for Haydn’s “Miracle” Symphony no. 96 in D major, and after the bombast of Strauss it was nice to hear Haydn’s gentle refrains, even if they only came one out of every three or four lines. Rarely does an orchestra sound happier to be alive than playing his London symphonies, and the Juilliard musicians played with a joyous precision. Hannigan, however, pushed the second Andante movement to a brisk trot, giving the first half of the evening an unfortunate sameness.

Clearly articulated, mid-tempo themes with a bunch of people on stage makes for a good strategy for winning over audiences, and it was a crowd pleasing program that suited the animated, charismatic conductor well. Strikingly good-natured on the stand, she used a cell phone ringing between the third and fourth movements of the Haydn as an opportunity to play a bit of chicken with the orchestra, fake cuing them with quick little pounces until the offending device was silenced.

Barbara Hannigan conducts the Juilliard Orchestra © Rachel Papo
Barbara Hannigan conducts the Juilliard Orchestra
© Rachel Papo

The second half entered the realm of myth with Debussy’s Syrinx and Sibelius’s Luonnotar and into the demands of virtuosity on the part of flutist Emma Resmini and soprano Meghan Kasanders as well. Debussy’s score calls for a flute soloist stationed in the wings; here Resmini was put in the second balcony to negotiate the modulations and variations in phrasing like a master’s thesis (which it very well could be). Kasanders filled the room with the opening lines of the Sibelius before it had even emptied of flute.

As with the Strauss, Luonnotar demands a huge orchestra, but here at last subtlety was called for. The strings behind her were held at bay, far softer than anything in the first half and the restraint paid off. Kasanders had to oversee no less than the whole of creation in the text and her power was palpable. The piece dissipated with both soprano and Hannigan’s hands held aloft.

We were back to the races with Bartók’s Suite from The Miraculous Mandarin and all the fury of a Bernard Hermann movie theme. Hannigan brought the orchestra back to the fever pitch that opened the evening, punctuating the finale with her baton like the shower scene from Psycho.

As a singer, Hannigan has made her name in no small part by making a splash. Her cosplay Ligeti videos have gone viral and her sung soap opera is something to behold. She clearly enjoyed leading the student orchestra and there’s no crime there; her enthusiasm made for an enjoyable evening for the audience as well. She has stated that the move from singing to conducting is at least a little strategic: conductors generally enjoy longer careers than do singers. Her career as a conductor will no doubt grow, and it will be interesting to watch her tackle works with more understated rewards. In recent years in New York, she’s sung Satie’s Socrate at the Park Avenue Armory, given the New York premiere to Hans Abrahamsen’s let me tell you at Carnegie Hall and Agnès in George Benjamin’s Written on Skin in Lincoln Center’s Mostly Mozart festival. She will, one hopes, rise to less soaring works as a conductor as well.

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