Imagine this: you are listening to an orchestra performing, when suddenly the conductor turns around and bursts into song. With her back to the orchestra, she continues to conduct them while singing. Does it sound unusual? Well, if you are going to a Barbara Hannigan concert, it is wise to expect things to be out of the ordinary.

Barbara Hannigan and the GSO
© GSOplay

Accordingly, this was not your ordinary by-the-book programme. The evening started with the concert hall in almost complete darkness and the sound of a sole flute soaring across the room from some undefined place in Debussy's Syrinx. It was a tender and elegant performance, by the end of which Hannigan quietly had made her way to the podium. As the story of the nymph Syrinx came to its close, the music of Sibelius seamlessly picked up in the orchestra, gracefully connecting the two pieces.

Like Syrinx, which describes a nymph turning herself into a water reed to escape the god Pan, Luonnotar is also about a mythical female figure. She is found in the Finnish literary folklore work Kalevala, in which she is described as the daughter of nature, giving birth to the sea during the creation of the world. Hannigan and the Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra created an intense atmosphere as the orchestra painted a mythological landscape around Hannigan’s silvery soprano, which sometimes sighed and moaned forth the melody, possibly representing the birth pains of Luonnotar.

After Sibelius it was time for the most contrasting piece in the context of the evening: Haydn’s Symphony no. 96. However, as much as it stood out from the rest of the programme, it proved to be a refreshing and energising injection of light and crisp sense of humour to the first half of it, especially the sunny and playful Allegro of the first movement and the brisk Vivace of the fourth, where Hannigan spurred on the orchestra with her choice of a high tempo. Another highlight was the violin duet towards the end of the second movement, which made for a fun and inviting dialogue. Throughout the work, Hannigan’s shaping of the shorter phrases and motifs stood out as especially personal, with determined energy and direction and always well-balanced crescendos.

Barbara Hannigan and the GSO
© GSOplay

This care for shorter motifs was also present in the next piece of the evening, Schoenberg's Verklärte Nacht for string orchestra – although the music is fundamentally different from Haydn's. The work is based on a poem from 1896 by Richard Dehmel which portrays a man and a woman walking together when the woman shares a dark secret: that she is pregnant with the child of another. However, the man forgives her and they walk on together into the moonlit night. Schoenberg’s music reflected the different characters of the story: anxious tremolos in the double basses and sighing melodies during the confession and then a complete change into a warm and glowing sound describing the man’s acceptance and understanding. The strings of the GSO showed that they are versatile and perceptive musicians as they went from full-bodied, sometimes even bombastic sound, to the transparent, shimmering diminuendo of the last chord.

It is not often that you get to enjoy both Haydn and Gershwin in the same programme. The Girl Crazy suite is arranged by Hannigan herself, together with Bill Elliott, and contains songs from the Broadway musical of 1930. GSO managed to deliver the jazzy groove which the music demands and also showed off a whole new skillset – as a choir! During the song “Embraceable you”, the musicians suddenly started to sing, first the male voices in unison and soon after both male and female voices in harmonies, which was a most enjoyable and charming feature.

Hannigan sang the solo part with a snappy sense of humour and theatrical touch, delivering the text carefully with distinct consonants but still playing with it by making fun glissandos and broad rubatos. The last song of the suite, “I got rhythm”, started with such a rubato which led up to full-on Broadway groove and a catchy ending with glittering high notes from Hannigan. It was an extraordinary show which is seldomly seen on the stage of the Gothenburg Concert Hall. Barbara Hannigan is an artist who I wish for everyone to experience!

This review is part of our student reviewers programme in collaboration with the Academy of Music & Drama of the University of Gothenburg.

Reviewed at Gothenburg Concert Hall, Gothenburg on 4 October 2019


Debussy, Syrinx

Sibelius, Luonnotar, symphonic poem for soprano and orchestra, op.70

Haydn, Symphony no. 96 in D major, "Miracle"

Schoenberg, Verklärte Nacht (Transfigured Night) for orchestra, Op.4

Gershwin, Girl Crazy: Suite


Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra

Barbara Hannigan, Soprano, Conductor

Håvard Lysebo, Flute