By John Fleming
MIAMI – The house lights were turned down for the start of the Cleveland Orchestra’s program at the John S. and James L. Knight Concert Hall. After a few moments of silence, the sound of an unaccompanied flute emerged from the vicinity of the stage. It was Debussy’s Syrinx, played by the orchestra’s principal flute, Joshua Smith, who was positioned in a rear second-tier box, though he couldn’t be seen in the darkness.
With his subtle tone and seamless phrasing, Smith’s performance of Debussy’s homage to the Greek god Pan was suavely atmospheric. What happened next was a perfectly realized little coup de théâtre.
As the brief flute piece faded away to a shimmering close, the lights came on to reveal vocalist and conductor Barbara Hannigan on the podium. Without a break, she segued into the mysterious, skittery violin passage that opens Sibelius’ astonishing tone poem for soprano and orchestra, Luonnotar.
Taken from the Kalevala, an epic poem on Finnish mythology, the song tells the story of “a maiden, a girl of the air, a slender Nature-Spirit” who evoked the creation of the world from a duck’s cracked egg. Over the course of nine minutes, Hannigan the singer brought an intense, completely focused sense of identification to the music. The solo part is daunting with its two-octave range and sudden, extreme leaps into the upper register, and she was not as clear and easeful as others I’ve heard in the tone poem (Soile Isokoski and Phyllis Bryn-Julson are two of my favorites). However, for drama and spine-chilling excitement, the Canadian soprano was unrivaled, as she gave a compelling, emotional enactment of the score.
As for Hannigan the conductor, without baton in a performance where singing demanded her full attention most of the time, she occasionally turned her back on the audience during transitions between verses to attend to the orchestra, which certainly knows its Sibelius. She kept things on track with a quick hand gesture or body movement or facial expression.
Although Hannigan is best known as a singer of contemporary opera, she has been singing and conducting simultaneously since a 2011 performance of Ligeti’s Mysteries of the Macabre in Paris. The Feb. 1 concert I attended was her U.S. conducting debut, and she also sang in three of the five works on the program. It was part of the Cleveland Orchestra’s 13th residency in Miami, two weeks of concerts and outreach activity that also included Mahler’s Second Symphony under music director Franz Welser-Möst, with vocal soloists Joélle Harvey and Sasha Cooke.
Before intermission, Hannigan led Haydn’s Symphony No. 86, one of his six “Paris” symphonies. This was an artful choice, given Cleveland’s legacy in Haydn under its legendary music director from 1946 to 1970, George Szell, who honed the orchestra’s virtuosity on the classical masters. (A landmark Szell recording with the orchestra is a superb two-CD set for Sony Classical of Haydn’s early “London” symphonies.)
Now with baton in hand, Hannigan was a forceful, animated presence in leading the somewhat reduced orchestra, and she brought out the lovely harmonies of the first movement, which featured a prominent role for flutist Smith. The contrast between Haydn’s unpredictable, almost formless slow movement, a romantic Capriccio, and the witty Menuet that followed was delightful. The brisk string play of the closing Allegro con spirito blossomed from a place of warmth and serenity into a rousing grand finale.
A pair of works from Hannigan’s 2018 Grammy-winning album with the Ludwig Orchestra, Crazy Girl Crazy – Berg’s Lulu Suite and a custom arrangement of numbers from Gershwin’s 1930 musical, Girl Crazy – occupied the second half of the program. She has toured widely with the mix:
The Florida performance was a refreshing departure from the standard repertoire that the visiting Cleveland Orchestra generally plays on its winter sojourn, but the 2,200-seat Knight Concert Hall was far from full.
Lulu is one of Hannigan’s signature roles, and her treatment of the suite of five excerpts from Berg’s opera felt definitive, with the orchestra in sensational form. The intricate scoring is loaded with 12-tone rows and jazzy riffs, such as the punchy piano of keyboard principal Joela Jones or the wailing alto saxophone of Joseph Lulloff that cut like a knife through luxurious, astringent strings, and Hannigan deployed them brilliantly. Peter Otto, the first associate concertmaster, contributed a keening gem of a solo. For the middle movement, the conductor turned to face the audience to sing Lulu’s defiant manifesto, an outburst of lyric coloratura, which bled into haunting sax and vibraphone at the end. In the final movement, at the moment in the opera score where the prostitute Lulu is murdered by Jack the Ripper, the orchestra let out a huge, clangorous blast.
Singing solos and conducting at the same time would seem to be impossibly difficult. Hannigan most clearly succeeds at embodying music that is close to her, such as the Lulu Suite, in an inspirational, almost spiritual sort of way, but she also brings effective stick technique to the task. There’s a scene in the DVD of the Royal Opera House production of George Benjamin’s acclaimed Written on Skin, in which Hannigan plays the tormented, abused wife, Agnès, that has her gracefully waving an artist’s brush in a manner that is not unlike her conducting while singing.
The Girl Crazy Suite was designed to be a companion to the Lulu Suite (opera and musical were written around the same time, and Gershwin and Berg met in Vienna in 1928). It features inventive arrangements by Hannigan and Bill Elliott, a composer and arranger for Broadway, movies, and the Boston Pops. They mash up Gershwin and Berg, along with quotations from Ligeti, Boulez, Mahler, and Kurt Weill. The 12-minute suite is built on three hits from the Gershwin show: “But Not For Me,” “Embraceable You” (with orchestra players putting down their instruments at one point to sing a chorus), and “I Got Rhythm.”
Hannigan is no Ethel Merman – whose show-stopping performance of “I Got Rhythm” in her Broadway debut launched her career – but the soprano made fine use of her lower and middle voice to belt out the infectious Gershwin standards, and the orchestra produced an unspeakably gorgeous sound. Who could ask for anything more?
On Feb. 8, Hannigan will conduct the Juilliard Orchestra in New York, where she is not slated to sing. She will perform double duty Feb. 13-14 with the Toronto Symphony Orchestra in the same program that was heard in Miami.
John Fleming is president of the Music Critics Association of North America. He writes for Classical Voice North America, Musical America, Opera, and other publications. For 22 years, he covered the Florida music scene as performing arts critic with the Tampa Bay Times.