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Barbara Hannigan
29 Aug 2016

40 minutes with Barbara rehearsal

One of the initiatives for the community at the Lucerne Festival is the ‘40 min’ series. A free concert given before the evening’s main event that ranges from chamber music to orchestral rehearsals.

40 minutes with Barbara rehearsal

A review by David Pinedo

Above: Barbara Hannigan


Without knowing what’s on the programme. For tonight’s edition with Berg and Gershwin, the queue outside went around the building. A huge interest! Inside, folks were arguing over seats. A disgruntled elderly couple planted themselves demonstratively on the reserved press seats next to me. They did not budge—I wouldn’t have either. That’s what you get when Barbara Hannigan performs!

The “Singing Conductor” shared her great musicianship with the Mahler Chamber Orchestra (MCO) in an insightful, albeit slightly haphazard, rehearsal for the concert the next day. The first part of that programme would also include Debussy’s Syrinx, singing Sibelius (Luonnotar), and a Haydn symphony. But tonight Hannigan performed the second half of that programme with a bit of Alban Berg’s Lulu Suite and most excitingly offered a sneak­peak of Bill Elliott’s adaptation of Gershwin’s Crazy Girl, specifically tailored for the Prima Donna. Elliott won a Tony for working on the orchestration for Christopher Wheeldon’s An American in Paris.

The rehearsal was a rehearsal, so I shouldn’t comment on the music...but it was great! What was more interesting was the insights into Hannigan’s collaborative spirit. She truly is rare jewel. The Lucerner Saal, a smaller venue within the marvelous structure of the Kultur­ und Kongresszentrum Luzern (KKL), made for an intimate experience that stimulated a dialogue between Hannigan’s wit and the audience’s laughter. Whispering kids full of curiosity added an additional giddy dimension.


On bare feet and in jeans with a casual but focused air, the virtuosa opened with a segment from Berg’s Lulu Suite. Having sung this role often, she knows all the tone rows of Berg’s characters, thus prepared to conduct this piece with dramatic perspective, but She did not sing. Instead she demonstrated her conducting skills were not just a gimmick and revealed an authentic talent. As extended extremities, her sinewy, muscular yoga arms became her batons. She performed the part of the piece where Dr. Schön’s in-love son Alwa meets Lulu right after she is released out of prison. Highly dramatic and very engrossing. Berg’s feverish music fit the humid summer heat arising from the lake.

Around the same time Berg was writing Lulu, Gershwin composed Crazy Girl. Hannigan recounted how the American composer supposedly was too shy to perform his music in front of the Austrian composer at a Vienna party. To which Berg responded: “Music is music”. Bill Elliott’s orchestration of Gershwin’s songs strangely resonated Berg’s atonality. I would have never associated the two with each other, if I had not heard them in this context: Gershwin like never before. It was a pity I could not stay next evening’s official premiere of Elliott’s Berg-echoing orchestration of “I’ve Got Rhythm”, “Embraceable You”, and “But not for me”.

Hannigan has a slightly dansant conducting style­­, natural and in tune with the music. Nothing overtly theatrical. With her fabulous voice and ­North-American intonation she brought Gershwin’s character immediately to life. Her sighs gave the songs authenticity. “Mister, listen to the the rhythm of my heartbeat” she sang. How poetic as conductor!

During this rehearsal, Hannigan revealed her collaborative spirit. She frequently requested feedback from the MCO’s musicians and strategically asked the saxophonist for a crescendo so she could recognize her cue: “The problems is, I cannot look at the my score then”. Her insistence on feedback resulted in great synergy: “Can I just hear that one, but without me?”.

The big reveal in Elliot’s orchestration was the sudden choral singing of the Mahler Chamber Orchestra as back­-up to the Maestra. They really seemed to enjoy this part. Certainly an unforgettable rehearsal.

I highly recommend the intimate setting of the 40 min. series. A terrific place to bring small children.

David Pinedo

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