Cher Public

We love you, Ms. Hannigan

Last week, Joni Mitchell celebrated her 74th birthday amidst a surprising amount of media coverage for a “milestone” so arbitrary. Could Barbara Hannigan be Mitchell’s classical counterpart? 

A native of Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, Mitchell is praised for her range of expression as a songwriter, creativity as a guitarist, and her voice, clean, firm, and easily produced in her early recordings. Reflecting on her career for the New Yorker, Dan Chiasson says, “[men] often wanted Mitchell to be a wife, a muse, a siren, or a star. Instead, they got a genius, and one especially suited to deconstructing their fantasies of her.”

Hannigan, from humble Waverley, Nova Scotia, is a soprano notable for her fluid, delicate tone, experiments in conducting, and the wide breadth of 20th and 21st century music she has interpreted and had written for her. A paragon of creativity, a woman active across fields dominated by men, and a perpetual, ephemeral muse? And does that mean we can consider her just as revolutionary, now and going forward, as an innovator in the industry? I sure hope so, because she so deserves it.

Even when peel away the “Barbara Hannigan” mystique, the low-key sincerity and cleverness of execution that pervades the innovative, artistically airtight work that she does, there still remains a thoughtful, accessible interpreter. This side of her was on full display in recital, part of Renée Fleming’s hip-as-can-be VOICES initiative, in the Kennedy Center’s newly-renovated Terrace Theater last night.

It’s no wonder she’s new classical music’s greatest working muse—her voice is a cool, glistening, misty gossamer web of sound. The innate fluidity with which she moves between notes across her range, from earthier lower reaches to a sensuous, floral upper register is a marvel. And although it’s not a voice with many colorings, the base sound is so pleasing and so effortless in its production that it seldom matters. It can be projected on to and sculpted. Indeed, there is no more beautiful a piece of marble than Barbara Hannigan.

In a program of late 19th and early 20th century lieder, she showed this manifold versatility across an array of composers, all the while supported thoughtfully by Reinbert de Leeuw, an accomplished composer in his own right. Opening with an uncomfortably melodic set of songs by Schoenberg (for which the Kennedy Center couldn’t find translations, apparently), Hannigan drew high notes out of midair and set a standard for easily negotiating the unmusical fronted vowels and palatal fricatives German provides.

The second song, “Schenk mir deinen goldenen Kamm” ended with a haunting plea for the narrator’s beloved Magdalena, while the third song, “Erhebung” showed that the voice can withstand the force of the pieces climactic final B-natural. de Leeuw’s calculated, dynamically provocative accompaniment in the measures of music that followed countered Hannigan’s heightened emotionality—it is Schonberg, after all.

In the Anton Webern selections that followed, five songs united by uneasily rippling melodies, heard Hannigan playing with her hard-to-detect vibrato, teasing the ear with various resonances across the songs and leaping from note to note with feather-light ease. She used her gently emotive physicality to strong effect here as a lover in rapture, but her positioning herself in the nook of the open-lid piano and refusing to budge her right hand from its grip throughout the performance made her resemble a tethered balloon desperate to float away.

Alban Berg’s atmospheric Sieben frühe Lieder, which alternate between traditional, amorous, and post-coital, were what followed. The final “Sommertage” exposed a gentle flutter in the voice when Hannigan puts pressure on the top, but the most notable was “Die Nachtigall,” in which each successive stanza built to more powerful finish. The song, about a nightingale whose song provokes the mocking natural beauty of a loveless world, reached a glorious ending on the phrase “Die Rosen aufgesprungen”—“the roses have sprung up.” Listening to Hannigan often feels that way.

The Alezander Zemlinsky lieder were performed earnestly, including an especially lusty “Tiefe Sehnsucht,” a trembling, haunting “Schlaf nur ein,” and a conversational “Entbietung.”

However, the highlight of the evening was four Mahler (Alma Mahler, to be exact) songs, and it wasn’t even for their vocalization. In four erratic, moody songs by another one of history’s great muses, Hannigan pushes past the musical deficiencies of the songs—they’re simply not very interesting—and hones in on the texts by Dehmel, Falke, Heine, and Birnbaum. Suddenly, the songs were the painful laments, pleas, and longings of a woman deeply insecure in relationships.

Twice widowed, once divorced, and famously amorous, Mahler came alive through Hannigan who breathed vulnerable vitality, despite its consistent testing of her middle register, the weakest point in her voice, into the second-rate music. Concluding with Hugo Wolf’s Mignon Lieder and no encores, Hannigan performed the most inherently dramatic pieces of the program with a combination of wide-eyed lamentation and quiet mania.

The night was only marred by the Kennedy Center’s seeming ineptitude in actually presenting a vocal recital—the lights in the Terrace were turned off during the performance and translations were consistently spotty and inaccurate (including a random Dutch version of one of the German songs side by side with the English). Still, though, Hannigan’s lucid singing won the evening.

Any good recital is about the present—the momentary significance of a small gesture, especially thoughtful delivery of notes. A good recitalist asks for truth, for time, and for now. My words? Nope. Joni Mitchell’s.