We are living in a golden age for classical music, and no one exemplifies this extraordinary moment more emphatically than Barbara Hannigan, the music director of the 2019 Ojai Music Festival, which runs June 6-9 at the Libbey Bowl. A brilliant and daring soprano, she began her career as a singer, adding conducting to her repertoire in 2011. Since then she has detonated previous expectations for sopranos by performing in opera, orchestral, and chamber music settings while developing a singular career as a new kind of multitasking musician — the singing conductor. As music director of the Ojai Festival, Hannigan will spread what she has learned from her broad and innovative practice over four days and nights with the help of a spectacular cast of fellow musicians, including the JACK Quartet and a Dutch orchestra called Ludwig.
Hannigan first came to many listeners’ attention in 2018, after her 2017 album, Crazy Girl Crazy, won the Grammy for Best Classical Solo Vocal recording. Working with Ludwig and the composer/arranger Bill Elliott, Hannigan brought music by Alban Berg and Luciano Berio together with the songs of Ira and George Gershwin to create something that was both decidedly new and totally Hannigan. Those interested in hearing her sing the Gershwin songs live should book their tickets for Sunday afternoon’s festival finale now.
My Barbara Hannigan experience began a little earlier with a piece written for her by Danish composer Hans Abrahamsen called “let me tell you.” It’s based on a book by Paul Griffiths that is, in its turn, based on the words spoken by Ophelia in Shakespeare’s Hamlet. This incredibly beautiful work won the prestigious Grawemeyer Award for musical composition in 2016, and hearing it led me to seek an opportunity to hear Hannigan perform in person. When I did manage to catch up with her at the Tonhalle, Zürich, in April of 2017, she blew me away with her conducting and singing of Berg and her conducting of Stravinsky, Debussy, and Ligeti.
All that and more will be on display over the four nights of the Ojai Music Festival. Thursday evening’s concert features a complete performance of Stravinsky’s opera The Rake’s Progress. Hannigan will conduct and the young soprano Aphrodite Patoulidou will sing the role of Ann Truelove, which happens to be the first major operatic role that Hannigan performed when she was 23. On Friday afternoon the JACK Quartet, together with pianist Stephen Gosling and two cellists, Jay Campbell and Alexa Ciciretti, will play two sets of chamber music by the New York avant-gardist John Zorn. That evening, Hannigan returns to the Libbey Bowl stage for a two-part concert featuring major works by Arnold Schoenberg, among others. In the first half, Hannigan will join the JACK Quartet for Schoenberg’s String Quartet No. 2. In the second, she will conduct a program that includes Schoenberg’s Verklärte Nacht. Even for those already familiar with these two modernist milestones, this program represents a chance to hear them in the idiom of a musician with a singular gift for musical storytelling.
Saturday’s midday program, always an exquisite pleasure in the tranquil natural surroundings of the Libbey Bowl, offers a tribute to Oliver Knussen (Ojai music director in 2005) paired with a work by his student, Mark-Anthony Turnage, and a rare symphonic tone poem by Sergei Rachmaninoff called The Isle of the Dead. The Saturday evening program promises to be one of the festival’s most memorable, as Hannigan will perform alongside members of Equilibrium, the 20-singer set of emerging musicians that she has mentored over the last two years. She will open the concert with a piece by John Zorn for soprano and piano, and then proceed to direct folk songs gathered by the members of Equilibrium from around the world and organized under the rubric “Rites of Passage.” The finale of Saturday evening’s concert is the Quatre chants pour franchir le seuil of French composer Gérard Grisey. These four meditations on life at the threshold of death were the last things written by Grisey, a composer in the “spectralist” vein of Kaija Saariaho, whose work was so central to the Ojai Music Festival under music director Peter Sellars in 2016.
Asked about her approach to the daunting task of directing such a prestigious and complex festival, Hannigan wrote that, “planning the Ojai programming … has been joyful, difficult, exhilarating, scary, and most of all, a deep journey into music that I love and want to share with others.” She went on to emphasize her delight in anticipating the kind of listeners who have remained loyal to this international institution, adding that, “having been to Ojai during festival time, I’ve sensed the vibe of the audience and their open and curious ears and hearts and I look forward to our collective energies coming together for four days of really great music!”
4•1•1 | The Ojai Music Festival will take place in and around the Libbey Bowl from Thursday, June 6, through Sunday, June 9. For tickets and information, call the box office at (805) 646-2053 or visit ojaifestival.org.