The week in classical: Siemens Hallé international conductors competition; LSO/ Hannigan; Turandot – review

The cheers in Manchester on Tuesday night were not only for the football (City’s 7-0 win against Leipzig). Another contest took place the same evening with more than 200 entries from across the world whittled down to a shortlist of eight, three finalists and one deserved winner. The aim of the Siemens Hallé international conductors competition is to appoint the Hallé orchestra’s next assistant conductor. (Wipe clean your image of that job as portrayed in the film Tár, which I vowed never to mention again but must, in the interests of accuracy.) The assistant role has existed at the Hallé since 2002 – the first holder of the title was Edward Gardner, now principal conductor of the London Philharmonic Orchestra – but the competition itself is new. Delyana Lazarova was the inaugural winner in 2020, and now ends her successful two-year stint in Manchester.

Much is at stake for all. From the conversational buzz last week it was clear many in the audience had followed earlier rounds (judged by an international panel of seven) and had views and favourites. As well as working alongside Mark Elder, now nearing the end of his long stint as the Hallé’s music director, the assistant must run its youth orchestra and engage with the many outreach projects, in care homes, schools, hospitals. Being able to conduct, as each of the finalists did, Mozart’s Marriage of Figaro overture is not enough.

Each then performed a substantial orchestral work: Pablo Urbina, 34, from Spain, had arguably the hardest task with Sibelius’s Symphony No 3. The organic growth and the work’s obdurate formal puzzles were skilfully unlocked by Urbina, drawing a buoyant response from the players. Agata Zając, 27, from Poland, showed flair and command in Stravinsky’s Firebird suite, surfing its technical challenges and rising to the challenge of the work’s grand close.

The winner was the youngest on the shortlist: the American Euan Shields, 24, who is still studying at the Juilliard School, New York. His Mozart had punch and risk, even if that led to some scrambled ensemble, but he handled Elgar’s Enigma Variations with authority, charm and a natural sense of pace and flow. As Elder, announcing the results, noted, the question he is always asked is: “What does a conductor actually do?” The answer is: a lot that cannot be seen from behind. The communication and musical intelligence to express phrasing, dynamics, rhythm, tempo, articulation, requires an immediate rapport with the players. The views of the Hallé musicians, as well as that of the youth orchestra who worked with the finalists in an earlier heat, was fed into the final result. Good luck to Shields, but watch out for the runners up too, all winners in their way.

The Canadian soprano Barbara Hannigan’s route to conducting has been through an intrepid singing career. Many composers have created works for her high-register virtuosity. Last weekend, citing health reasons, she decided not to attempt both endeavours as part of her residency with the London Symphony Orchestra. She conducted, but handed the last-movement solo in Mahler’s Symphony No 4 to Aphrodite Patoulidou. The versatile Greek soprano, also one-time lead singer in a heavy metal band, has been part of Hannigan’s important Equilibrium Young Artists initiative.

Barbara Hannigan conducts the LSO and soprano Aphrodite Patoulidou in Mahler’s Fourth at the Barbican.
Barbara Hannigan conducts the LSO and soprano Aphrodite Patoulidou in Mahler’s Fourth at the Barbican. Photograph: Sophia Evans/The Observer

Hannigan’s gestures have a sculptural fluency. She uses her hands as if holding the sound in her fingers, now spacious, now feathery, now rich and compressed. This caused some smudges in Messiaen’s sumptuous L’Ascension. In the symphony, however, her approach was analytical and detailed. Mahler leaves nothing – and everything – to chance, spattering the score with multiple gradations of instruction. Within a matter of pages he specifies: gradually, do not rush, quite leisurely, leisurely again, hold back. How to differentiate? Hannigan does precisely as the composer asks. Not all conductors do, no doubt fearing the whole performance will collapse. At times, Sunday’s account was dangerously ponderous, but thought-provoking too. Hear it on Radio 3 on 24 March. Hannigan, it was announced last week, will conduct the opening concerts of the LSO’s new season: an endorsement indeed.

At the Royal Opera House, another conductor, Antonio Pappano – who first learned his skills as a pianist working with singers – spun gold out of storeroom dust. Turandot, in Andrei Serban’s production, with designs by Sally Jacobs, was first seen in 1984 and has returned to Covent Garden at least 15 times since. Pappano, one of the best Puccini conductors of today, has spoken of his ambivalence towards this unfinished work. This was his debut conducting it live in the theatre (he has also just recorded it with a different cast).

That reservation is understandable, and shared by many of us. Based on Persian legend reworked in the 18th century, Turandot lacks humanity, except in the figure of the slave girl Liù (sung with compelling grace by Masabane Cecilia Rangwanasha, in the first of two casts). The hero, Calaf, is in love with the ruthless princess of the title, a figment he barely knows. Given his indifference to the fate of his frail old father (superbly sung by Vitalij Kowaljow), you could say the lovers deserve each other. Yonghoon Lee’s Calaf, sleek, mighty and urgent in Nessun dorma, was well matched by Anna Pirozzi, imperious in the ice-maiden title role. In Pappano’s hands, ROH orchestra on fire, the score glistened and crackled.

The Ping, Pang and Pong episode in Act 2 can feel endless. Here, it took on the air of a thriller. The swish of a Chinese gong, muted brass, insistent pizzicato cellos whispered in menace while the trio of nasty functionaries (excellent work from Hansung Yoo, Michael Gibson and Aled Hall) sang about riddles and severed heads, tossing skulls the while. Join in the wild excess and spectacle at cinema screenings – live on 22 March and repeated on 26 March. This Turandot’s long and spectacular reign can’t last for ever.

Star ratings (out of five)
Siemens Hallé international conductors competition

  • Turandot is at the Royal Opera House, London, until 13 April