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Part of our “Performer Picks” series of interviews with world-renowned artists about their favorite works in the B&H catalog. Read other "Performer Picks" interviews with Alisa Weilerstein, Patrick Summers, and Julia Bullock.

Soprano and conductor Barbara Hannigan is a magnetic performer and powerful authority on contemporary music, having premiered nearly 100 new works throughout her career including Brett Dean’s opera Hamlet, for which she created the role of Ophelia to acclaim, as well as works by Unsuk Chin, George Benjamin, and Hans Abrahamsen.

Hannigan has particularly championed the music of fellow Canadian Claude Vivier—this season, she conducted performances of Lonely Child and Wo bist du Licht! with the Munich Philharmonic, The Cleveland Orchestra, Orchestre Philharmonique de Radio France, and London Symphony Orchestra.

Hannigan first heard Vivier’s music as a conservatory student—at a performance of the opera Kopernikus—and recalls feeling “chemically changed by the music.” Later, she became more acquainted with Vivier’s music through her close mentor and friend, the composer and conductor Reinbert de Leeuw. Hannigan explains the universal appeal of Vivier’s music: “Each piece possesses a deep, mythical kind of storytelling that touches the authenticity of a person. All Vivier’s music in my opinion goes straight to the heart.”

Hannigan recently sat down with us to discuss some of her favorite Vivier works. Read her interview below, and listen to her "Performer Picks" playlist on Spotify.

1. Lonely Child for soprano and chamber orchestra
Simon Rattle had once asked me for a wish list of pieces I’d like to perform—and from my long list of works, he programmed Lonely Child with the Vienna Philharmonic! In rehearsal, he was searching for the right way to convey the nature of the music to the orchestra. He finally summed it up by saying, “You need to play it like opera, with the gravitas of Wagner.”

For me, Lonely Child is the piece that epitomizes who Vivier was, both as a composer and a human being. As a conductor, I started programming Lonely Child with all the major orchestras with whom I work because I thought, ‘If an orchestra is playing Vivier for the first time, it needs to be something they’re going to love at first sight.’ Lonely Child is that piece because it’s so deeply touching on a very primal level.

There are autobiographical aspects to Lonely Child. As many people know, Vivier was born out of wedlock and given to an orphanage. It was very traumatic for him that he never knew who his parents were, especially who his mother was. What’s so powerful about the vocal part of Lonely Child is that it is sung in French and in Vivier’s made-up language, which he most likely invented at the orphanage to sing to himself.

2. Wo bist du Licht! for mezzo-soprano, percussion, strings and tape
Once I had introduced orchestras to Lonely Child, I felt free to program the next piece, which in my opinion, is Wo bist du Licht! What’s particularly interesting about Wo bist du Licht!—and different from his other works—is its political overtones. It includes a taped excerpt of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech. It has the news announcing the assassination of Bobby Kennedy. It has some news items from the Vietnam War. Then there’s a poem by Hölderlin that is read.

Where Lonely Child goes to the heart of something very personal, Wo bist du Licht! goes to the heart of something very collective. Where Lonely Child has a tenderness, Wo bist du Licht! has violence. Wo bist du Licht! is more of a call to humanity—we feel the darkness all around us in that piece, the darkest aspects of what humans are capable of doing.

In this piece, one can clearly feel that Claude Vivier studied with Karlheinz Stockhausen. Dare I say, the student surpassed the master!

3. Hymnen an die Nacht for soprano and piano
Hymnen an die Nacht is a product of Vivier’s experience in the class of Karlheinz Stockhausen. He uses texts by Novalis, a poet who Stockhausen was very interested in. I was on tour with Stockhausen around 2003, and Stockhausen was often reading Novalis before concerts.

Hymnen an die Nacht is the creation of some kind of magical, mysterious structure. There’s an almost fairytale quality, as the singer is singing—not nonsense syllables, but not words. It’s not unbelievably difficult to sing, but it’s challenging to inhabit and present a world all within five minutes.

I’ve sung the piece quite often, and I love singing it—there’s a video of me singing it from when the pandemic first started, and this was one of two pieces I wanted to offer during this time. It’s a great piece for any soprano voice to sing. I frequently ask young singers to look at it as they always have requirements to sing contemporary music pieces for their studies, but often their choices are too conservative. This piece stretches you as a performer to find levels of attachment within, between yourself and the music.

4. Bouchara for soprano, woodwind quintet, string quintet, percussion, and tape
Back around 2003, I remember singing Bouchara in the Vienna Konzerthaus with Ligeti in the audience during his European birthday tour. Ligeti was absolutely awestruck by the music of Claude Vivier. Vivier was a very important composer for Ligeti: He saw the delicate balance in the music—one cannot become too emotional, nor can one be too distant. It is very emotional music.

Bouchara is for soprano and 11 instruments. In my score, I have written: “The entire ensemble has to breathe,” and, “Everyone sings.” It's a reflective, meditative chamber music piece. I think of it as a quiet moment after a big event—everyone has to move together and everyone has to breathe together. The whole ensemble builds to a climax, but it’s a climax of inner strength.

In typical Vivier style, he doesn’t give a single beat of rest to the singer in the entire piece. It’s really, really tiring, but very rewarding. It's been a long time since I sang it, but I still feel if I had to sing it tomorrow, I could sing it tomorrow.

5. Et je reverrai cette ville étrange for chamber ensemble
This was one of the first Vivier pieces I ever heard—it was written for Arraymusic, an ensemble in Toronto with whom I often worked. In this piece, the whole ensemble must play the exact same notes and rhythms. The rhythms are not easy, and it’s difficult to keep your focus for the duration of the piece and to not fall out of the ensemble.

Last summer, I was working on this piece with a group of young artists in Nova Scotia. On the first day, I was conducting the music. By the second rehearsal I thought, ‘They don’t need this.’ I stopped conducting and let them feel it, breathe it, and sing it for themselves. The chamber ensemble is piano, viola, cello, contrabass, trumpet, and percussion. They have to treat it like a vocalise together.

The audience—not a traditional ‘new music’ audience—loved the performance. They found it absolutely transfixing to watch the group’s depth of concentration. It was very powerful. You could call it modern music and yet it’s timeless.

Photo: Marco Borggreve

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