Barbara Hannigan is one of those artists who might give all of us a complex if she was not also such a joyously captivating personality. She is breathtakingly talented, looks like a goddess and is smart as a whip. She initially made her career singing modern music – calling cards of hers include Berio’s Sequenza III for solo voice and the title role in Berg’s Lulu – and the list of composers with whom she has collaborated include Boulez, Dutilleux, Ligeti and Stockhausen. But that not being enough, she turned to conducting, and has worked closely for the past several years with the Dutch ensemble LUDWIG. Their first CD together just received a Grammy nod, from which the programme she presented this week at the Konzerthaus drew its material.

Barbara Hannigan © Elmer de Haas
Barbara Hannigan
© Elmer de Haas

Hannigan opened with Luigi Nono’s brief but gripping Djamila Boupachà, a soprano solo based on the Algerian militant of the same name. Djamila was brutally tortured during her interrogations by the French army, and when her case was publicized by Simone de Beauvoir and others it did much to affect public opinion about military methods and French colonization in Algeria. Nono wrote this portrait in 1962, the same year Boupachà was freed from prison after receiving amnesty from a death sentence the year prior. The crystalline quality of Hannigan’s voice, its pure flexibility and slender strength, made the piece heartbreakingly forlorn as she effortlessly navigated dissonant leaps throughout the work’s vast ambit.

Any idea that Hannigan was going to be mostly singing and just, you know, “conducting” a tad was sharply corrected as she deftly navigated LUDWIG through Schoenberg’s dense , emotionally charged Verklärte Nacht for string orchestra. Schoenberg’s work, based on Dehmel's poem of the same name, depicts a woman’s emotional state as one night she reveals to her lover that she is carrying another man’s child. Her emotional state, depicted through thick chromaticism and generous use of enharmonic chord re-contextualization, moves slowly through the anxious dark to euphoric light. He finally accepts her child as his own and forgives her completely and the two walk out “durch die hohe, helle Nacht”.

Berg’s Lulu Suite that followed was clearly something Hannigan knows inside and out and, even when conducting while singing with her back to the orchestra during the third and fifth movements, she made it seem effortless. This is indeed the kicker with Hannigan – she makes impossible things look like second nature. Her voice has one of the easiest floats to it in the business, and despite the heft of what she takes on, there never seems to be much of a struggle. At this point, it would not surprise me to learn that she is also a black belt in Tai Chi, cooks a perfect soufflé and has six perfectly well-adjusted children.

What I love most about this particular Barbara is that she makes whatever she is doing her own. Instead of simply performing music that suits her in a stylistically appropriate way and with astounding technique, she creates a thematically linked, musically varied programme she cares about. She plays with expectations, opening with a single spotlight after a complete stage blackout to dramatic effect, and I am pretty sure she was rocking slippers on stage. Most interestingly, instead of just tacking unrelated Gershwin favorites on at the end of the programme as crowd pleasers, she chose Girl Crazy numbers in Bill Elliot's new arrangements. Elliot’s additions and interludes are not just beautiful but, if I am not mistaken, there were moments of Berg, Mahler and Weill woven into the orchestral interludes. More than just ameliorating the surprise of a vast stylistic jump on the heels of Lulu, this sort of playful rearrangement allowed us to view the known differently, making it fresh and relevant.

I cannot say that these were the best orchestral renditions I have ever heard of the Berg or Schoenberg. LUDWIG is a solid ensemble, but I prefer their warmer middle sounds to their upper register timbre and they were in no way perfect in ensemble or tuning. But that really was not the point. They were engaged and able to jump from Berg to Gershwin without blinking, and when every member broke into (beautiful) harmonic song in the Gershwin, the audience reaction was priceless. They are definitely the ensemble that you would most want to be part of if you happen to like both music and fun, and I believe that only by taking a page out of LUDWIG and Hannigan’s book and making “serious” music truly relevant will it not just survive, but truly thrive.