Barbara Hannigan Awarded the Order of Canada

by Ron Foley Macdonald

Barbara Hannigan has been awarded the Order of Canada for her achievements in singing and conducting classical music in some of the world’s most important venues.

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 Ligetibest 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.

Barbara Hannigan. Photo credit / copyright: Stefan Bremer
Barbara Hannigan. Photo credit / copyright: Stefan Bremer

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.

Ron Foley Macdonald

Ron Foley Macdonald

Ron Foley Macdonald is a filmmaker, musician, author, and arts journalist who lives in Halifax, NS. He has written for such publications as the Halifax Daily News, The Globe and Mail, The National Post, and Take One. He taught film history for 15 years at the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design, and has also taught at Dalhousie University and Mount Saint Vincent University. For two decades he was the Senior Programmer at the Atlantic Film Festival. He is currently the curator of the film and video series at the Dalhousie Art Gallery, and the producer of the recent feature films Exit Thread and Roundabout.
Ron Foley Macdonald

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2 thoughts on “Barbara Hannigan Awarded the Order of Canada

  • July 11, 2016 at 9:44 am

    Thanks for covering this important musician’s work. Great to hear more about what she’s doing, and you’re right, the community is sorely missing a classical music reviewer at the Herald, and now, missing the journalists at the Herald as well. Because this situation is very frustrating, I’ve started a website for classical music in Nova Scotia, which you might want to have a look at – My aim is to increase awareness of what’s happening here at home and highlight our local classical players and presenters. Glad to discover your site through Halifax Examiner!

  • July 19, 2016 at 8:37 pm

    Dear Ron,
    Thanks for this delightful tribute to the amazing Barbara Hannigan. But you should check out the story of Ligeti’s music and Kubrick’s film. It’s very convoluted, kinda sad, kinda funny, but mostly just fascinating.



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