Hannigan was born in Nova Scotia in 1971 and raised in Waverley, at the time a small village just outside of Dartmouth. I first came across her name a few years ago while checking out recent post-modernist releases on the web. In 2013, she recorded the premiere of French composer Henri Dutilleux’s massive piece Correspondances. It won the Gramophone ‘Recording of the Year Award’.
Correspondances is a challenging work. Partly atonal and delivered on a very large scale with a full orchestra, it’s exactly the kind of piece that a fearless soprano such as Hannigan has excelled at. While she has sung some of the standard classical repertoire – Handel and Mozart, for example – the Waverley-raised singer has deliberately made a career of pioneering the works of difficult composers like György Ligeti, best known for his micro-tonal music written for the freak-out climax of Stanley Kubrick’s classic 1968 film 2001: A Space Odyssey.
Hannigan was in Toronto for a series of sold-out shows in early 2015 where she conducted Igor Stravinsky’s classic Symphony In Three Movements. She’s also appeared in a recent production of Alban Berg’s classic modernist opera Lulu.
To think that the East Coast’s classical music scene produced one of the world’s great contemporary music talents provides one of those sobering moments in the arts out here. Hannigan may be less well known to casual listeners than Waverley’s other great musical export, April Wine’s Myles Goodwyn, but there is no question about her monumental achievements.
Hannigan studied in Nova Scotia until she was 17. She moved on to the University of Toronto before plying her trade mostly in Europe. Still, this should prove something of a rallying point for Halifax’s under-reported classical music scene, as well as the often neglected cause of teaching music in the school system.
There’s plenty of rich activity going on here, from Symphony Nova Scotia’s full season to the Scotia Festival of Music’s annual chamber music offerings. With the shrinkage in the media and the slow withdrawal of the Chronicle Herald’s patronage of classical music reviewer Stephen Pederson, coverage of the scene has been sorely lacking.
No reviews have appeared, for example, of the extraordinarily ambitious series of concerts by the King’s College Chapel Choir and Capella Regalis Men and Boys Choir over the last few years, when they premiered works by the Swiss Contemporary composer Frank Martin along with debuting the late Renaissance-era Requiem by Pierre De La Rue. This season the company presented Claudio Monteverdi’s masterpiece Vespro della Beata Vergine, a sprawling and crucial work that bridges the Renaissance and Baroque periods.
The director of the Choir, Paul Halley, is a multliple Grammy winner, along with his son and assistant choir director Nick Halley, a percussionist who has worked with James Taylor, among others. They represent the kind of world-class talent that enlivens the East Coast Classical music milieu.
All of which brings us back to the amazing Barbara Hannigan, a new member of the Order of Canada and a undeniable world class talent herself. In a Globe and Mail interview in 2015 she stated that she was investing in land back in Nova Scotia, along the Northumberland Shore, to re-acquaint herself with her home province.
With any luck, Nova Scotians may finally have a chance to catch up to Barbara Hannigan after all.