Soprano Hannigan triumphs with BSO in new Abrahamsen work

February 5, 2016 at 3:15 pm

By David Wright

Andris Nelsons leads the BSO with soprano Barbara Hannigan in Hans Abrahamsen's "let me tell you" Thursday night at Symphony Hall. Photo: Michael Blanchard

Andris Nelsons leads the BSO with soprano Barbara Hannigan in Hans Abrahamsen’s “let me tell you” Thursday night at Symphony Hall. Photo: Michael Blanchard

Last week’s midsummer dreams gave way to frost-kissed midwinter visions Thursday night in Symphony Hall, as the Boston Symphony Orchestra and music director Andris Nelsons introduced a significant new work to Boston during the second of three scheduled programs of works inspired by Shakespeare.

Bracketed on the program by brassy theater music by Shostakovich and Prokofiev, Hans Abrahamsen’s let me tell you for soprano and orchestra provided a mesmerizing, and ultimately deeply affecting, look inside the troubled spirit of Hamlet’s Ophelia. 

It also showcased the unusual vocal gifts of Barbara Hannigan, who was making her BSO debut. Besides Abrahamsen himself, the Canadian soprano was the “onlie begetter” of this piece, having had the idea for it, persuaded the Berlin Philharmonic to commission it, advised the composer on advanced vocal techniques, and given the world and U.S. premieres in Berlin (led by Nelsons) and Cleveland respectively.

With an extraordinary palette of tone colors and vocal placements, discreet vibrato or flute-like straight tone that blended uncannily with orchestral instruments, pulsing vocal “bebung” on a long note, dizzying vocal leaps and high pianissimo entrances, Hannigan shaped the text by Paul Griffiths (from his novel of the same name) into a probing portrait of a female melancholy Dane.

Sparkling with the icy glint of piccolos, violin harmonics, and percussion tinkles ascending almost into the dogs-only range, Abrahamsen’s setting tore no passion to tatters, and Nelsons’s baton did not “saw the air thus.”  A wintry hush blanketed the proceedings for most of the performance’s half-hour-plus length. 

Yet for all its discretion, this performance suited the action to the word and the word to the action, to riveting effect.  Unfolding its themes of time, memory, and love, the work broadened in its third and final part, with Hannigan’s voice on the line “So: I will go on in the snow” producing the almost-visual effect of the young woman’s spirit merging with the winter landscape. 

Having tapered the work’s last pages to silence, singer and conductor held the moment a full thirty seconds before Nelsons gently laid his baton down, and a single shout of “Bravo!” started the ovation. 

The audience showed its appreciation of the work, or at least of Hannigan’s breathtaking performance, by standing and applauding long and loud, bringing singer, conductor, composer Abrahamsen (looking a very un-melancholy Dane), and critic-novelist Griffiths repeatedly back to the stage.

The evening began with excerpts from Shostakovich’s incidental music for a 1932 production of Hamlet by the avant-garde director Nikolai Akimov.  In this version, the play was presented as a burlesque, with a fat, Falstaffian Hamlet, a drunken, nymphomaniac Ophelia, and so on, in a thinly-veiled satire of the vices of Stalin’s Russia.

The 25-year-old Shostakovich composed sassy music to match, giving free rein to his ironic, satirical side, and even drawing on his experience, during student days, as a movie-house pianist improvising to silent film comedies.

So it wasn’t hard to visualize scenes for most of the seven short vignettes in this performance: the huddled, shivering watchmen in the low woodwinds, the pompous funeral march with booming tuba, bass drum and cymbal, a crazed Ophelia in the wobbly, dancing flute, a moment of tenderness in a lullaby for string quartet. Nelsons led a snappy, bright-hued performance that did full justice to Shostakovich’s witty and inventive scoring.

This writer tends to get impatient with long intermissions, but on this occasion it was good to have time to bring oneself back from the psychological depths of let me tell you before confronting Prokofiev at his showiest in the ballet Romeo and Juliet.

Prokofiev made three suites from the ballet, from which Nelsons selected ten movements, sequenced more for musical variety and pace than for story continuity.  Thus, a lively “Morning Dance” gave this new “suite” an energetic sendoff, and the performance closed with “The Death of Tybalt”—hardly the end of the play, but an orchestral showpiece that could serve as a spectacular finale.

Although in the scores of the suites Prokofiev had reduced the number of horns, trumpets and percussion instruments from the original ballet, Thursday’s performance appeared to restore the orchestra to full ballet strength.  In any case, this rendition had no end of orchestral power and color.

Nelsons dove head first into the character of each movement.  Hatred and brutality blazed through the thudding Darth Vader march of “Montagues and Capulets.”  The “Balcony Scene” glowed with the weightless passion of the young.  Even a “Dance” that didn’t depict anything in the story flew along fetchingly to light drum strokes and crisp interplay of woodwinds.

It was good to hear these familiar tunes, which have been trotted out in so many different contexts as to become a sort of classical elevator music, get the full-dress treatment from a conductor and an orchestra at the top of their game.  It gave one a renewed appreciation of the heart and skill that went into the piece in the first place.


Earlier in the evening, before the orchestra program, nine musicians from the Boston area gave an hour-long chamber-music concert in the BSO “Insights” series, performing Shakespeare-inspired works by five composers. 

No verbal “insights” were offered (except in Robert Kirzinger’s concise program notes), only performances of uniformly high quality, including soprano Sari Gruber’s sensitive treatment of Strauss’s Ophelia-Lieder and Stravinsky’s Three Songs from William Shakespeare; Mickey Katz’s lively solo cello in excerpts from Ned Rorem’s After Reading Shakespeare; a quartet consisting of Katz, violinists Wendy Putnam and Victor Romanul, and violist Rebecca Gitter in a mesmerizing performance of the Romeo-inspired second movement of Beethoven’s Op. 18, No. 1; and Romanul and pianist Randall Hodgkinson laying on the schmaltz in Erich Wolfgang Korngold’s 1918 incidental music to Much Ado About Nothing.

The main program will be repeated 8 p.m.; 617-266-1200.  The chamber-music program will not be repeated.

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