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Hannigan Sings "let me tell you", with the BSO

Soprano Barbara Hannigan
Elmer de Haas
Barbara Hannigan

Saturday, January 9, 2021
8:00 PM

Soprano Barbara Hannigan sings Hans Abrahamsen's "let me tell you," and Andris Nelsons leads the Boston Symphony Orchestra in suites from Shostakovich's "Hamlet" and Prokofiev's "Romeo and Juliet."

Encore broadcast from February 6, 2016 

Andris Nelsons, conductor
Barbara Hannigan, soprano

SHOSTAKOVICH Excerpts from the incidental music to Hamlet, Op. 32a
ABRAHAMSEN let me tell you
PROKOFIEV Suite from Romeo and Juliet, Op. 64

Watch a conversation about let me tell you with composer Hans Abrahamsen, librettist Paul Griffiths, soprano Barbara Hannigan, and others, from the WGBH Forum Network:


Below, in an interview with WCRB's Brian McCreath, Barbara Hannigan describes the origins of let me tell you, why she knew before even seeing the score that it would be a significant work, and what essential items she travels with to maintain her sense of normalcy as a touring musician:


Brian McCreath (BMcC) [00:00:00] I'm Brian McCreath from WCRB, with Barbara Hannigan at Symphony Hall, your first time to sing with the Boston Symphony. So good to see you and great to meet you, Barbara.

Barbara Hannigan (BH) [00:00:08] Thank you. It's wonderful to be here with the orchestra and in this hall. It's... I walked out on stage yesterday before the rehearsal, just, um, heard the space. And I thought, oh, this piece is going to be beautiful in this space.

BMcC [00:00:22] Have you been to Symphony Hall before?

BH [00:00:23] No, I've never been here. My father studied in Boston, but it's my first time.

BMcC [00:00:29] Terrific. Well, I'm thrilled that you're here. I've known this piece, "let me tell you," for a while, basically since it was premiered in Berlin, and I just adore it. So I was thrilled when it came up on the schedule this year. Let me ask you about it, though, especially given what the piece is about, I mean, or the voice that it's in, however you want to put it. Did you have a particular relationship with the character of Ophelia before you got to know this piece? Or did you develop a particular relationship with the character of Ophelia through working on this piece?

BH [00:00:58] I didn't have a particular opinion about the character. Of course, I knew who she was. I'd seen Hamlet many times. I'd read it. But I, I think I purposefully didn't make any decisions about her. And probably I still am not doing that. I try to just let it come as it does, because just like the voice is different every day, the human being is different every day. I think one's perspective, including the perspective of Ophelia, can be different. So I can allow different aspects of the story, of the text, to become more in the foreground and in the background as it feels, you know, in the moment, with the orchestra, in the space. It really it feels like a piece where there is a lot of dialog, somehow.

BMcC [00:01:47] Yeah, even just among the one voice that it is, it still is a dialog piece, and even between you and the orchestra.

BH [00:01:53] Absolutely. I feel like I'm joining their sound. They're joining my sound. We all are deeply listening to one another. And it's as if we create the piece in the moment in every performance. So it's always new. And yet there's also a feeling about it that it is, that it is very old, as if it's always been there.

BMcC [00:02:18] OK, so the piece just won one of the biggest composition awards, the Grawemeyer Award. And so I wonder over the the time that you've sung it, you sang it, I don't know how many times.

BH [00:02:28] Well, I think we're... I think this will be 25 or 26 now. I've done it with, this will be the 11th orchestra. And if I sang it two or three times with each orchestra, that kind of adds up I think.

BMcC [00:02:38] You just released a recording of it. So, so just tell me if your way of inhabiting it on stage has changed over the last two years since the premiere.

BH [00:02:48] Well, I think that the premiere was, of course, very, very heightened energy because it was like the birth of the piece, you know, and all the work that we had all put into it. I had memorized it for the very, you know, I had memorized it for the first rehearsal. So this was a lot of work. And it was very emotional to kind of bring it to the public in Berlin and to have such a beautiful orchestra, an orchestra with whom I have a very, very lovely relationship.

[00:03:20] And it was the first time that I had worked with Andris and I was so happy that it was him, because he is obviously an extremely intelligent person. But he doesn't come to music from a purely intellectual perspective, and especially in modern music. I really was glad that both of us were coming from the feeling of the piece, not what we think about it, but what we feel about it, you know, and this was very special.

[00:03:50] Over time, it's changed. I mean, it changes sometimes just by the concert hall and by the sound of the orchestra. You know, I've sung it at the Concertgebouw in Amsterdam. I've sung it at Carnegie. You know, it's it's been all over Europe and now it's it's coming to America, and it kind of likes to find its way, I think, with the different players and with the sound of particular orchestras, you know, each orchestra has their own sound and so they bring that to the piece. And I find that the piece is so good that it's malleable in a certain way. You know, it can adjust to  the particular strengths of an orchestra. If we're playing with an orchestra who has an incredible pianissimo, then that works very well. If we're working with an orchestra where the acoustic of the hall is is very, very live or where it picks up much more of the middle register, it also adjusts to that. It's different, you know, every time. And I love that. I just love the experience of it each time.

BMcC [00:05:08] The way that the piece evolves over time, I love how you speak of it almost as though it's its own character. It is its own thing. It has its own life.

BH [00:05:15] Yes, absolutely. Like when I talked about, you know, the piece like coming into the world, like I really do feel like, you know, the pieces that I, I am attached to, let's say, it feels like offspring. You know, there is a feeling of needing to care for it to make sure that it has a good life. I mean, right now, "let me tell you" is only a toddler. It's two years old. It's learned to walk about ten months ago. And, you know, but it still needs care. And I think this is also why Hans and I agreed that for the first five years of the piece that I am the only person who sings it and then it can go out into the world and everyone that wants to sing it and program it can do so. But just for the first five years, that it has like one parent who's with it.

BMcC [00:06:05] Yeah. But you've built an artistic identity, if I can use such a grandiose term, around your relationship to new music and to composers. And so, you see a lot of music that's just been produced. And I wonder if two years ago when you first saw this piece, if you had the recognition of this one being maybe a little bit special.

BH [00:06:25] I knew it was special even before the score happened. That's why I already had, I think I had five orchestras on board. I'd programmed it with five orchestras at least before Hans had even written a note.

BMcC [00:06:39] Wow.

BH [00:06:39] And he had never written a vocal piece. So it's not like people are saying, "Oh, yes, we love his last vocal piece, so this will be great." He had never written a major vocal work. I had this feeling about it. I think we all did. Those of us that were in the creative core of it. When I received the score, I remember I was in London in a hotel and the score arrived, and I laid on the bed and opened it up, and I did, without realizing it, I was weeping because I saw something that I had never seen before. And yet it touched me in a way as if I knew it. You know, it was a very, very special feeling. I mean, I've had that feeling about other pieces, particular pieces by Ligeti, certainly "Lulu," some pieces by Boulez that I've sung. But this, this felt, maybe because it was so... so close. Also because it's in English and maybe the story, you know, that this Ophelia, she has this combination of being very fragile and vulnerable, but also being incredibly strong. And this I just love about her.

BMcC [00:07:50] Yeah. You have a dual career as a conductor, so tell me how that got started and what what led to it?

BH [00:07:58] Well, the conducting began in 2011. I made my debut in Paris at the Châtelet, which was kind of a big place to make a debut. It was a small opera, an opera by Stravinsky called "Le Renard," The Fox. Uh, so I was conducting and yeah, it began because some colleagues of mine, some people that were executives and some other musicians, they started to see a certain facility in me for kind of leadership in music making, and it was suggested over time, "Oh, you should think about conducting," or "You sing like a conductor."

[00:08:39] And then finally, René Bosc, who is an executive at Radio France, said, "I'm going to set this up. I'm going to make it happen. This is the piece you should do. This is where you can do it. Ta-da." And I slept on it and I thought, all right, yes, OK. So I took the risk and I mean, it could have been a big failure, but you can't know unless you take the risk. So the next day after the performance then the phone started to ring and that's kind of how it all began.

BMcC [00:09:11] And now that you also have maintained, absolutely, a singing career, you must feel like you're stepping on stage with conductors and you're almost, can I just project that you might be willing to receive something from them in conducting terms?

BH [00:09:27] Oh, yeah.

BMcC [00:09:28] So what is it you get from other conductors? And specifically, if I can ask, you mentioned Andris and his emotional approach to music, but what else do you sense from Andris that helps your conducting?

BH [00:09:38] Oh, Andris is very good with pacing and psychology. He knows how to encourage... I mean, if something isn't working properly, he knows how to rehearse it in a particular way without stressing the players out, but just letting them know that this needs particular attention. He doesn't wait till it's perfect. He doesn't make them play it till it's perfect. He makes them play it until they're aware of what's wrong. And then we can move on because he knows that they're going to take a look at it later, or even just the passage of time until the next time they play that, it will correct it basically just through awareness.

[00:10:18] But I mean, every, you know, I have such a luxury because I work with, like Simon Rattle and Esa-Pekka Salonen, and Andris and, you know, Franz Welser-Möst, and just incredible, incredible colleagues. And every single chance that I have to work with these people, it's like a lesson. It's like a music lesson, because I'm just learning all the time also from my colleagues in the orchestra, constantly learning from there, from how they react, how they play. You know, I can ask them for advice when I'm studying new scores. It's really, it's a very generous realm, I think, being in the music business. It's very, very generous and very collegial. And I think every day, you know, I could basically just skip to work because it's the happiest place to be, you know, with the orchestra. It's just for me, it's just incredible.

BMcC [00:11:17] So I read an interview with you where you talked about your early, your education and how new music and old music, it didn't make any difference to you. It was just all music. And so now, the point where you are in the building of your career as both a conductor and a singer, is there a way that you see or envision a life that is sort of this percentage of conductor, this percentage of singer? How does that work out?

BH [00:11:44] Well, I've kind of color coded my schedule now at the suggestion of a good friend. Yeah, I've color coded it. So then I have the engagements that are opera, which is yellow, which then the engagements that are concerts that I sing, which I think is red and the engagements where I'm conducting which are blue. And then I have like one other color for preparation time and there's just not enough of that color. But there's never been enough of that color because I think you always feel like you can prepare more. I feel like the balance is good.

[00:12:22] You know, right now, vocally, I'm at my peak. I don't want to be pushing myself too hard in conducting while I still have the instrument, you know, in good shape. And it wants to sing. It's like an animal, you know, it's like a horse. It wants to be riding and moving. And so that's kind of how I'm dealing with things. Eventually, I think maybe in ten years or a bit more, you know, the conducting will have a much more prominent place and the singing will be less. But at the moment I have some projects that are very important to me, some opera productions, certain directors. I like to work with filmmakers, photographers, choreographers, all kinds of people. So I, I want to stay very active in the performing. So conducting is about twenty five percent of my time at the moment.

BMcC [00:13:12] OK, all right. But you're speaking of this balance in very pragmatic terms, which makes sense. I mean, you're cultivating and nurturing a voice, an instrument, as you say. But the relationship between these two pursuits, there's an artistic pursuit within each one that's unique. Do they, how much do they inform each other?

BH [00:13:33] Oh, they help each other immensely. I mean, as a singer, I've always been the kind of musician that is very much studying the score. You know, I feel like this, of course, my training and my perspective now as a young conductor informs the way I'm singing, but I think the singing informs the way I'm conducting even more. I'm looking for particular colors in the orchestra, particular cantabile, which means singing tone, you know, cantare, cantabile. I think this is something that many instruments are are basically trying to imitate the voice. And so I am working, and I often, I also sometimes coach, um, basically I coach string players a lot privately or at music schools in spare time. I give master classes to work on this particular approach to sound. So it's only helping to develop my ear and to develop my imagination and my understanding and perspective. And then, once I have those things, then to have the physical tools to be able to show that to the orchestra so that they can, that we can have a kind of collaboration which is pleasing to us.

BMcC [00:14:58] One more question. It's always dangerous to hold somebody to what their Twitter profile says they are. But yous says you're an epicure.

BH [00:15:05] Epicure! Well, what is an epicure?

BMcC [00:15:08] Well, how important is that to you?

BH [00:15:10] Well, isn't "epicure" someone that loves food?

BMcC [00:15:13] Loves food, yeah.

BH [00:15:14] And loves the good things in life? Yeah, well, that's very important. I mean, when you're on the road basically 11 months of the year, you don't have a whole lot to hang on to. One thing you can enjoy is a good meal. And I don't enjoy good meals really when I'm working because I eat very plain food like a sports person, basically, and before performances and on rehearsal days. But I have a list of great restaurants and if I'm not at a restaurant, I'm cooking for myself. I travel with my own knives. I often will rent apartments where I go and I have like a little box of spices and salt and things that I like to have with me at all times so that I can cook, you know, and it's really my only hobby and I love it. So, yeah, "epicure" is, I think, it's a choice word on my Twitter profile.

BMcC [00:16:05] Okay. Accurate Twitter profile.

BH [00:16:06] Mhmm. Yeah. Well I think I made it. Yeah.

BMcC [00:16:09] [Laughs] I bet you did. I imagine maybe that the knives are a bit of a TSA issue sometimes every once in a while.

BH [00:16:14] No, because they're in the suitcase, they're in the suitcase. I've never had a problem. Once I had a problem with a tuning fork, somebody wanted to take my tuning fork away. I was like, it's not that dangerous. Right.

BMcC [00:16:28] Barbara Hannigan, thank you so much for taking a little time to talk with me today.

BH [00:16:30] My pleasure. Thank you, Brian.