From Berg to Gershwin, soprano Hannigan does delightful double-duty with Cleveland Orchestra

By David Fleshler

Barbara Hannigan conducted and sang with the Clevkand Orchestra Friday night at the Arsht Center in Miami. Photo: Justin Holden/CO

Barbara Hannigan conducted and sang with the Cleelkand Orchestra Friday night at the Arsht Center in Miami. Photo: Justin Holden/CO

Here’s a sight rarely seen at concerts: in the opening minutes of a performance Friday night by the Cleveland Orchestra, the conductor turned to the audience and started singing.

The Canadian soprano Barbara Hannigan served as both conductor and soloist at the orchestra’s Miami concert, leading a performance that should put to rest the criticism that the orchestra’s South Florida residency programming is boringly mainstream.

The concert at the Arsht Center offered a substantial chunk of music by Alban Berg, the Viennese 12-tone composer not known for filling concert hall seats. There was a symphony by Haydn, among the most neglected of the great masters. And toward the end, during a performance of Gershwin songs, the expensively trained instrumentalists of the Cleveland Orchestra were required to sing, doing a surprisingly creditable job with a chorus in “Embraceable You.”

The concert opened with another novelty, Debussy’s Syrinx for solo flute, performed by the orchestra’s principal, Joshua Smith. With the orchestra members in their seats, the stage lighting darkened to black and Smith’s tones began floating through the hall.

The flute is not an obvious instrument for an extended unaccompanied work. But as performed by Smith, this was an absorbing piece, melodic, dramatic and searching, made all the more effective by Smith’s tone, particularly rich and luxuriant at the lower end.

Not pausing for applause, Hannigan launched the orchestra into a performance of Sibelius’ tone poem Luonnotar for soprano and orchestra, a portrayal of a Finnish creation myth, in which the universe is born from the shards of a broken egg. Unlike Sibelius’ best-known works, such as his symphonies, Finlandia and the Violin Concerto, this piece felt far distant from the classical mainstream, with an austere Nordic tone evocative of pre-Christian Europe

Hannigan made no effort to sing in a rich, Romantic manner, using a vocal style pretty much the opposite to what might be deployed for a Puccini heroine. She sang with angular force and a tight vibrato, her voice easily carrying over the surging orchestra and forcefully handling stark leaps from note to note

Judging from the dark tone of the music, the creation of the universe was a pretty grim affair for the Finns. There was a particularly striking passage in which Hannigan sang a mysterious series of ascending passages over a dour accompaniment in the lower strings, a solemn and thoroughly absorbing part of the work.

The first half ended with a performance of Haydn’s Symphony No. 86, one of a set he composed for performances in Paris.

Unlike some musicians who take up conducting, Hannigan didn’t over-conduct, making no attempt to personalize the music through exaggerated dynamics or phrasing. But she still put her mark on the work, leading a performance that was almost Romantic in scope and style, far from the brittle Classical approach that many bring to Haydn.

There was a dynamic excitement to the buoyant melodies of the first movement, with a fiery performance of fast passages in the strings, although ensemble cohesion could have been tighter. The broad violin and wind melodies of the Largo came off with unusual passion and feeling. The well-mannered Menuet gave way to a luminous crescendo of ascending suspensions. And the Finale was joyous in the unique Haydn manner, with the main melody tripping from section to section in a performance that was full of energy to the end.

The Berg work was the Lulu Suite, assembled from his unfinished opera about a manipulative temptress who dies at the hands of a legendary serial killer. Here the full powers of an incomparable orchestra were on display, in a richly colored performance of subtle shades and frank sensuality.

The misty opening unfolded with a soft-edged tone and rich textures in strings and winds. Strings played in a flowing manner that captured the music’s swirling mystery. Yet despite the tactile feel of the performance, the playing retained a clarity that allowed the harmonic complexities of the score to come through.

The brass produced a distant, restrained tone in a rhapsodic melody that contained more than a hint of tonality. Then, as the music turned darker, the brass became hard-edged and violent. In “Lulu’s Song,” in which the title character explains herself to her hapless husband, Hannigan sang in a rhapsodic, sensuous manner.

The concert ended with the Girl Crazy Suite, a show-stopping series Gershwin songs, arranged by Hannigan and Bill Elliott. Her using some amplification, Hannigan lightened her voice to a thoroughly non-classical tone, giving a lively performance that ended with a dazzling ascent to her uppermost range for “I Got Rhythm.”

The program will be repeated 8 p.m. Saturday at the Arsht Center in Miami. arshtcenter.org

Posted in Performances


2 Responses to “From Berg to Gershwin, soprano Hannigan does delightful double-duty with Cleveland Orchestra”

  1. Posted Feb 02, 2019 at 8:21 pm by Gonzalo Giraldo

    The program was obviously designed around Hannigan, without any links among pieces, to give her the chance to maximize her singing time. It was a one person concert, she was the center, not the orchestra.

  2. Posted Feb 04, 2019 at 2:39 pm by Michael

    The previous comment is ridiculous. The concert was two hours, with intermission. Hannigan sang for about 20 minutes, which is about normal for a soloist in an orchestra concert: 13 minutes in the Gershwin, 3 minutes in the Lulu Suite and about 3 minutes in the Sibelius.

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Sat Feb 2, 2019
at 12:01 pm
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