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Last night at Roy Thomson Hall, Barbara Hannigan, the singing maestro, performed as only she can. She led the Toronto Symphony Orchestra in a concert displaying her adeptness as both a coloratura soprano and conductor. While one might expect the Tafelmusik Orchestra to perform with the first violinist directing the group, it felt strange in last night’s eclectic program for a singer/conductor to appear as one person. Nevertheless, Hannigan took control of the orchestra and injected her magnetism to create an evening that much of the audience found spectacular. The Gershwin medley that ended the program sent the audience home singing.

If a program title had been given to the concert it might have been taken from Andrew Lloyd Webbers’ musical entitled Aspects of Love. Although a fitting theme for Valentines Day, much of the music was not what one would expect on the most romantic day on the calendar.

The concert began with Kelly Zimba, TSO’s new principal flautist, performing in darkness from the rear of the hall. The music was Debussy’s Syrinx, the title referring to the nymph who transformed herself into a grove of reeds to avoid the pursuit of her admirer, Pan. It was a short reflective piece that reminded me of the opening moments of Debussy’s Après-midi d’un faune. This was my first-time hearing Zimba in such an exposed solo role. The shades of tone colour in her playing were stunning. The orchestra is fortunate to have her.

Kelly Zimba and TSO; Photo credit:  Jag Gundu

Barbara Hannigan and TSO; Photo credit:  Jag Gundu

​​Review by  David Richards
oronto ON  February 15th 2019

Barbara Hannigan and the Toronto Symphony turn Valentines Day upside down!

The program moved immediately into Sibelius’ Luonnotar for Soprano and Orchestra, Op. 70. Here Hannigan sang with incredible dramatic energy while conducting the orchestra at her back. As I was looking for a Valentine’s Day theme again in the music, I realized that in fact this text is a Finnish creation myth. The music itself was stark and jaggedly dissonant, the forceful orchestral interludes and the emotional singing, both reflecting the theme of the poem. Only at the end is there any sense of resolution.

The first half concluded with Haydn’s Symphony No. 86 in D Major, Hob. I:86. Here, Hannigan took up the baton and left her voice behind to give a spirited performance of this music. I was at a loss to find the theme of the evening’s program as I was formulating it in my mind reflected in this work. Hannigan appeared to be showcasing herself to be a diversified artist capable of delivering on a classical symphony. The smaller orchestra responded to her animated conducting with an energetic performance.

Following intermission, Alban Berg’s Symphonic Pieces from the opera Lulu ​returned to my imagined theme of love in a distorted way. The music is taken from Berg’s opera in which Lulu goes through several sexual relationships until she becomes a prostitute and is finally killed by Jack the Ripper. The music, much of it using twelve-tone syntax, is as disturbing as the opera’s story. Hannigan once again sang while conducting, and although I personally found it distracting, she garnered the requisite power from both her voice and the orchestra.

Finally, judging by the reaction,, came the music that the audience had anticipated. The suite from George Gershwin’s Girl Crazy, arranged by Hannigan and Bill Elliott, became a toe-tapping sing-along. Her amplified voice had all the show-stopping energy of a Las Vegas headliner. Even the orchestra got into the act with their voices at one point. Nevertheless, the songs themselves, But not for me, Embrace me and I Got Rhythm were more about loneliness, rejection and obsession than real love. Maybe, in the end, that is what Valentines Day is all about for many people.

For me, the highlight of the evening was the performance of the TSO Chamber Soloists in a pre-concert performance.  A sextet consisting of Concertmaster Jonathan Crow, Acting Principal Violist Theresa Rudolph, Principal Cellist Joseph Johnson, Associate Principal Cellist Emmanuelle Beaulieu Bergeron, violinist Clare Semes, and violist Ashley Vandiver performed Arnold Schonberg’s Verkläert Nacht Op. 4. One could hear the shimmering strings portraying the moonlit walk in the woods. The transparency of the individual lines and  beauty of the romantic harmonies created the framework for the honest dialogue of a man and woman in the poetry upon which the score is based. Their deep love will include the love of a child fathered by another man. Now this is my kind of Valentine. TSO Chamber Soloists will perform next before the TSO's concert on April 12 2019 with Beethoven’s Sextet in E-flat Major, Op. 81b. Kudos to Jonathan Crow for curating this series of chamber music performances.

The Toronto Symphony Orchestra takes the stage next on February 20th and 21st at Roy Thomson Hall with Thomas Dausgaard conducting and Alisa Weilerstein as cello soloist in a program of music by Rued Lannggard, Dmitri Shostakovich and Béla Bartók.