In review: Hannigan & Gražinytė-Tyla at the BBC PromsReview
Saturday night was BBC Prom 55 at the Royal Albert Hall; the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, under Lithuanian maestra Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla, shared the stage with Canadian soprano Barbara Hannigan for what was an evening of firsts.
The 30-year old Gražinytė-Tyla is the newly appointed music director of the CBSO, and she had an exciting London debut with the BBC Proms. She was a ball of energy, athletic with her gestures, one of those conductors that makes you hear all the hidden inner lines in an orchestra. She led them through the overture to Mozart’s The Magic Flute and Tchaikovsky’s Fourth Symphony, inspiring enormous fortes and impossibly small pianos, almost like a challenge to the orchestra.
It’s always a fab thing to see a woman on the podium, and Gražinytė-Tyla seemed excited by the full Albert Hall and big-deal vibe of a Proms concert. Aside from her conducting, we loved watching her exit the stage with the likes of Barbara Hannigan and composer Hans Abrahamsen, foregoing the “ladies first” tradition in favour of “maestro last.”
Another first, the point of curiosity for the evening was the London premiere of Abrahamsen’s let me tell you, a dramatic monologue for soprano and orchestra, with text based on Ophelia’s from Hamlet. Paul Griffiths, who created the text for let me tell you, writes that this version of Ophelia “is not quote the Ophelia of Shakepeare’s Hamlet. She has the same words, her entire text being made up from words Ophelia speaks in the play, but she uses these words in different ways, and certanily to express herself differently.”
Abrahamsen wrote let me tell you for Hannigan’s voice in 2012⁄13, after the soprano gave him a crash-course in writing for singers. “I gave him about a four-hour lecture-demonstration on the voice and history of vocal composition,” said Hannigan in a Proms Q&A. “I showed him what the rules were, who broke them and how they broke them.”
The piece indeed screams of what Hannigan does well; it’s technically demanding, with extreme high notes and a significant amount of low, almost vulnerable singing in her speech range. The 30-minute monologue is broken into three parts, and that Hannigan performed it memorised is an impressive feat. Hannigan “One thing that’s really important,” said Hannigan, “even though it is a challenge, is to memorise the music. The music stand is a statement. You are immediately saying ‘this is difficult.’ I hope that whoever takes [the piece] on will truly invest their heart and mind.”
Abrahamsen’s score is full of novel and surreal sounds, including an extraordinary moment of what feels like a heavenly choir and orchestra, shimmering with texture and treats for the ear. Throughout the score is a vocal motif, stretching words through repeated syllables, almost like a slow-motion version of a Baroque goat-trill. The word-painting is thoughtful, and the entire piece has a moment of stillness, evoking an Ophelia that is less plagued by insanity, and instead more contemplative, almost detached from the events she recalls - out of order as they may be - from Hamlet.
Perhaps it was the size of the venue, but there was something that felt stuck about let me tell you. The composition devices, the musical motifs, the consistency of pulse, they seemed to run out of direction, as though the affect wore off and became ineffective. It’s clear that Abrahamsen made a decision to maintain a still texture - reminding us often of Saariaho’s music; the text itself was hard to get solely through listening, made more difficult by the nature of his text-setting. Often we were left with only an atmospheric effect, instead of clearer text to guide us through the cloudy (and beautiful) orchestral sound.
It was one of the subtler performances we’ve see of Hannigan’s, and she’s still a riveting figure onstage. Without paring down the orchestra, we’re curious to hear let me tell you in a more intimate venue. After this season, the piece will be available for other singers to tackle; it’s at this point in a new work’s development that it can expand and gain more context from varying artists.
It certainly got us excited to hear Hannigan reprise the role of Agnès in George Benjamin’s Written on Skin, when the Royal Opera House revives Katie Mitchell’s production in January of 2017.