MONTREAL — Barbara Hannigan is an unusual artist, pursuing as she does a double major in singing and conducting, sometimes simultaneously. The Canadian multitasker ceded the podium on Dec. 7 to Orchestre symphonique de Montréal music director Rafael Payare but made a characteristically original contribution as a soloist.
The idea in the first half was to present Luigi Nono’s Djamila Boupacha (1962), Sibelius’ Valse triste (1903), and Claude Vivier’s Lonely Child (1980) as a half-hour triptych with no intrusive applause. Any piece of music, of course, can stand in relation to any other, and if the connections here were not obvious, it was still interesting (and perhaps a little comforting) to hear the silky and melancholy Sibelius after the stark leaps and sudden dynamic shifts of Nono’s tribute for solo soprano to the Algerian political icon of the title.
Hannigan sang this from the organ loft, where a spotlight added to the dramatic effect. She was on stage for the Vivier, dressed in something like fairy-tale garb, which was not a bad match for the ethos of the piece. Serving as his own scriptwriter, the composer (1948-83) mixed French (“Bel enfant de la lumière…”) and an invented language (“Dadodi yo rrr-zu-i dage dage da è-i-ou…”) into what he called “a long song of solitude” addressed poignantly to himself.
Counterpoint and triadic harmony are avoided in Lonely Child in favor of prolonged and blockish melody, to which are added gongs, bells and thwacks on the bass drum. The soprano often joins the orchestra in the parallel meandering, adding, of course, a human dimension. Performing from memory, Hannigan made the otherworldly sonorities seem spontaneous and heartfelt.
There was light amplification, which had the paradoxical effect of softening her vivid tone, at least as I heard it from the center of the parterre. Possibly a boost was needed to get the sound up to the balcony of the Maison symphonique — not that this resonant room normally requires assistance.
It was certainly a good setting for Berlioz’s Symphonie fantastique, a standard whose audacity on this occasion seemed fully restored. Leading with abundant gestures, Payare made the punchy brass offbeats and timpani strokes sound modern against a full, shimmering complement of strings. It was good to hear first and second violins bundled to the conductor’s left and violas, cellos, and double basses positioned on his right — the way it used to be and, in my opinion, the way it ought to be.
Wind solos, with one exception, were expert. If the “Scène aux champs” was unduly relaxed, the final pages of the “Songe d’une nuit de sabbat” were appropriately riotous. Payare placed the offstage oboe in the mezzanine and the tubular bells in the organ loft, in both cases to good effect. This piece has been an OSM calling card for decades. Judging by the reaction from the close-to-sellout crowd, it will remain firmly in the orchestra’s repertoire.
Texts in the first half were projected in French and English, eliminating the need for words in the printed program. All that was provided in any case was a sheet of paper with a list of works and a QR code — as if firing up your cellphone while seated at a concert is anything resembling an acceptable option. I suppose we can do without the ads for luxury automobiles and timepieces, but surely easy access to an explanatory essay is a plus when the music is as off-Broadway as Lonely Child. Nor is the absence of a list of OSM musicians a minor matter.
The repeat performance on Dec. 10 will be available as a streamed concert on the Symphony service starting Jan. 21.