Barbara Hannigan and the Toronto Symphony Orchestra. Photo by Jag Gundu

Barbara Hannigan and the Toronto Symphony Orchestra. Photo by Jag Gundu


The Toronto Symphony Orchestra presented ‘Dynamic Duo’, featuring John Storgårds (conductor & violin) and Barbara Hannigan (conductor & soprano) performing five pieces by as many composers. September 19th 2019 at Roy Thomson Hall: 

* Ludwig Van Beethoven —— Overture to Egmont, Op. 84 

* Henri Dutilleux —— Sur le même accord: Nocturne for Violin and Orchestra

* Franz Joseph Haydn —— Symphony No.96 in D Major “Miracle”

  • Adagio - Allegro 

  • Andante 

  • Menuet: Allegretto 

  • Vivace 

* Brett Dean & Matthew Jocelyn (libretto) —— And once I played Ophelia for String Orchestra and Soprano (Canadian Première)

  • Fast, breathless 

  • Hushed, distant, mysterious

  • Fast, agitated

  • Extremely still

  • Slow, austere 

* Jean Sibelius —— Symphony No.3 in C Major, Op.52

  • Allegro moderato

  • Andantino con moto, quasi allegretto 

  • Moderato - Allegro, ma non tanto 

they’re back! it feels like just last week that the 2018/2019 season closed with sibelius’s Violin Concerto--and as if returning only after a short hiatus--the TSO’s 2019/2020 season opened with a program bookended by beethoven’s Overture to Egmont and sibelius’s Symphony No.3. the program in its entirety felt like something picked out of a hat, or perhaps itself a variegated overture to the next ten months of music making. i,f that was indeed the wink and hint behind the variety of compositions on the program——a delicate balance between the staid/traditional and modern/experimental——then it’s fair to say this season will have something in stock for almost every member of its audience.

‘Beethoven’ by Jeremy Lewis for Blue Riband @jplewisandsons

‘Beethoven’ by Jeremy Lewis for Blue Riband @jplewisandsons

at first, second and third glance, it’s hard to extract a unifying theme from list of compositions on this program, but the presence of the two names at the top of the bill——hannigan and john storgårds——provided the necessary cohesion and continuity between the centuries that separated the four composers presented. after a land acknowledgement followed by an anthem sing-along, the TSO’s 96th season began with the Overture beethoven wrote for the play Egmont (1789), along with nine other pieces of incidental music written for the play via a special request from goeth. in performing it the orchestra sounded exactly like it did at the end of june, bringing to the piece a lightness of touch and sprightliness of pace. 

transitioning seamlessly from the classical to the modern, hannigan, storgårds and the TSO brought a performance of french composer henri dutilleux’s conceptually austere composition for solo violin and orchestra, Sur le même accord. that accord is a six-note chord that is dissected and used as the musical material for an eerie and nocturnal discourse between orchestra and solo violin (storgårds). the composer, present for commentary, categorizes the piece as a Nocturne, appropriately so considering the clouds of notes that periodically mushroom out of the mid-sized orchestration and are accented by cantankerous interjections from the percussion section. in conjunction with hannigan’s athletic conduction  and the crackling energy with which storgårds attacked his instrument, the performance conveyed the piece’s restlessness that was nowhere near sleep or the nocturnal. 

Barbara Hannigan, John Storgårds and the Toronto Symphony Orchestra. Photo by Jag Gundu

Barbara Hannigan, John Storgårds and the Toronto Symphony Orchestra. Photo by Jag Gundu

returning to Classical form, the next item was franz joseph haydn’s Symphony No.96; nicknamed the ‘Miracle Symphony’ in reference to that time a chandelier fell during its performance and miraculously no one was injured. it’s an unfortunate thing for such a good story to become slightly blemished by facts: the TSO program notes did not fail to point out that though a chandelier did fall, and indeed no one was injured, that incident occurred at the performance of a different Symphony (#102). between the whomp whomp of the bassoon, the chirping melodies on principal oboe (sarah jeffrey) and hannigan’s enthusiastic demands upon every section she was interacting with, i was brought back to some of my favourite moments from last season. expectations for the evening were firmly set by the last time hannigan was with the TSO, in february of this year, which also featured her as a combo-virtuoso singer and conductor taking on a smorgasbord of a program. perhaps second only to that time the entire orchestra (and audience) conspired against the conductor to perform a symphonic ‘Happy Birthday’ instead of the opening notes of ‘Ride of the Valkyries’ for an unsuspecting sir andrew davis——was hannigan’s turning of the orchestra into a choir to sing a couple lines from ‘Embraceable You’, to the delight of a very unsuspecting audience. 

she’s a swiss-army knife of sorts on stage, a musician that believes as much in performance as in precision and accuracy of interpretation. as a singer, her acting chops bolster her piercing soprano, with its command of inflections, out of which grow spontaneous gestures that are as expressive as believable. as a conductor, her physicality is especially of note: without a baton in hand, she counts the beats with her whole person——a combination perhaps of what is so enjoyable about watching karajan or berstein conduct——her crouching stance when she anticipates a sharp phrase from the string sections or a bit of thunder and lighting on timpani. 

Barbara Hannigan, John Storgårds and the Toronto Symphony Orchestra. Photo by Jag Gundu

Barbara Hannigan, John Storgårds and the Toronto Symphony Orchestra. Photo by Jag Gundu

while i’m not a fan of understanding her performance through the aperture of hannigan as a female conductor, it isn’t irrelevant how uncomfortably male-dominant the conductor’s podium is in the genre——why aren’t there more women conducting? i say ‘uncomfortable’ because that is the most incontrovertible, most un-opinionated expression of the need for gender parity in classical music. aside from the legitimate frustrations of progressive sentiments that want to see more women in that capacity, there is also the dismissal of simple statistics that one can’t sit comfortably with: if half the audience and orchestra is female, then those numbers should be reflected in the demographic of guest conductors that come through the TSO. very much alive and white men conducting the music of dead white men is of course perfectly fine, granted you can find other ways to find peace with that uncomfortable feeling that the genre is perhaps increasingly irrelevant to the full spectrum of the human experience——or at least the humans at Roy Thomson Hall on any given night. i admit i’d be amiss to criticize the TSO on the issue of gender parity after opening their season with a female conductor, but seeing hannigan do it and do it so well necessarily engenders the thought as to why more of such instances aren’t seen on stage. there is a bit of preaching to the choir happening here, but it’s one of those issues that everyone agrees on, but the consensus of which is not reflected in the reality of the presentation of orchestral music.

moving on, her talent as a singer was on display with the next item on the program: the canadian première of ‘And once I played Ophelia’, a suite for string orchestra and soprano by australian composer brett dean and canadian librettist matthew jocelyn. it is a work that appears to result from a workshop approach between artists that trust each other’s creative instincts. even after all has been said and done in pre-production, the work still felt green and alive during the performance, hanging on every word sung by hannigan and accompanied by an orchestration that is very befitting of a psychological thriller (with intermittent barely audible vibrato on cello and bass). the thriller dean had in mind was of course Hamlet. referencing several lines said by, to and about Ophelia, jocelyn created a sort of soliloquy-suite characterized by obsessive examination of a couple phrases from shakespear’s play (‘Get thee to a nunnery’, ‘Doubt thou the stars are fire…’) that translated very well into the heightened intensities of hannigan’s style of performance. of special note are the funky tempo markings designated by the composer planted in the score, and the TSO took them in stride with the request in the program to ‘Please turn page quietly’ halfway through the second movement marked ‘Hushed, distant, mysterious’.

‘Sibelius’ by Jeremy Lewis for Blue Riband @jplewisandsons

‘Sibelius’ by Jeremy Lewis for Blue Riband @jplewisandsons

last on the list was sibelius’s Symphony No.3, and storgårds was in his element. with this symphony sibelius apparently turned towards a more Classical construction of his musical ideas, unfortunately. the folkloric magic that enchanted his Symphony No.1 and the marathonian excesses of his Symphony No.2 don’t find much expression in this more formulaic and economic pattern of composition. nevertheless there was still that indelible stamp of the composer’s unique accent throughout the piece: folk melodies played on flutes and clarinets over crafty pizzicato figurations, for example. not to mention the pleasure of seeing storgårds conduct a piece he was so obviously fond of and in intimately familiar with. 

despite all of that, it wasn’t just the hannigan-storgårds show on thursday night. before either of them made their appearance, the presence of the orchestra, joined by the customary entrance of concertmaster jonathan crow (who had a very busy summer with the Toronto Summer Music concert series), was greeted by a heartfelt acknowledgement, via applause, of the simple yet tremendous pleasure of having them back in session. my best guess is that it’s going to be another exciting season of music making, of this growing and increasingly diverse community of music makers (the audience too are music makers as far as i’m concerned, maintaining our exceptionally prolonged rest note!). and since kawhi’s unfortunate departure from our toronto Raptors (and our subsequent return to reality of our means), i look forward to reallocating all of my toronto-based fandom to the TSO’s 2019/2020 season.