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Read Katherine's exclusive interview with Hans Abrahamsen about the project here.
Premiered by soprano Barbara Hannigan [with the Berlin Philharmonic] and conductor Andris Nelsons in 2013. 'Let me tell you', winner of the 2016 Gawemeyer Award, is a setting of a libretto by Paul Griffiths. The work is based on Griffiths’ 2008 novel of the same name, using the limited vocabulary which Shakespeare afforded Ophelia to create a more complex idea of the character. Comprising seven poems, the work is divided into three parts devoted to Ophelia’s past, present and future.
Danish composer Hans Abrahamsen was smitten by the idea of scoring Paul Griffiths’ novella 'let me tell you'; Barbara Hannigan, asked to sing at a surprise party for the writer and critic, dared to suggest a commission to the Berlin Philharmonic. Before she knew it, they had accepted. While many world premieres fall into oblivion, she has ensured subsequent performances with the Gothenburg Symphony, Rotterdam Philharmonic and the City of Birmingham Symphony this season; other orchestras have plans to programme the work further down the line. The soprano, who has sung some 80 premieres, feels such a strong sense of responsibility that she compares the piece to a baby: "Don’t drop it," she wants to say, "keep it clothed and nourished." This is the second time that a musical setting of a text by Paul Griffiths has won the Grawemeyer (Tan Dun's Marco Polo won in 1998). The piece also won the 2014 Royal Philharmonic Society award for large-scale composition, which described it as "a work of exquisite beauty whose ravishing surface belies a meticulously imagined and innovative score". Abrahamsen’s other accolades include the Carl Nielsen Prize (1989) and the Wilhelm Hansen Composer Prize (1998).
Hannigan has revealed just how involved she was at the early stages of the composition process: this being the composer’s first sung work, she [Hannigan] gave him a four-hour session in vocal music from Renaissance to 12-tone. "I think that’s why the writing doesn’t feel like modern music to me," she says. "I feel like it has always been there. Even though the intervals and rhythms might be difficult, the lyricism has a timeless quality."
Hans Abrahamsen: Let Me Tell You, Pt. 1
Part 1: Let me tell you how it was
Part 1: O but memory is not one but many
Part 1: There was a time, I remember
Let Me Tell You, Pt. 2
Part 2: Let me tell you how it is
Part 2: Now I do not mind
Let Me Tell You, Pt. 3
Part 3: I know you are there
Part 3: I will go out now
14th January 2016
“It was created for soprano Barbara Hannigan and is a stunning vehicle for her, with its floating, effortless-sounding high notes and pure, expressive tone. Her Ophelia is intense and fragile, sensuous and febrile; her phrasing is elastic and tasteful...The piece won this year’s $100,000 Grawemeyer award and it’s easy to hear why.”
5th February 2016
“the piece, a winner of a Grawemeyer and an RPS award, contains a whole ocean of melancholy and ferocity. This is realised by the extraordinary soprano Barbara Hannigan and by Abrahamsen’s wondrous score, which embraces Romantic echoes and fascinating microtonal clusters … What emerges is a postmodern portrait of a woman with much more of an inner life than even the Bard may have realised.”
“Abrahamsen expresses both the fragility and force of Griffiths's imagined Ophelia through glinting, gauze-like textures and moments of clattering tumult…Barbara Hannigan's agile, luminous voice is ideal, and sings with power and subtlety, superbly matched by Andris Nelsons and the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra”
“The spare yet pregnant lines of text meet Abrahamsen’s finely spun textures and each word feels felt and weighed in music. Possibly you don’t even need to know that Barbara Hannigan is singing Ophelia’s words any more, yet her vehemence and passion suggest she thinks justice is finally being done to a woman who never did get much chance to tell her side of the story”
New York Times
15th December 2016
“Abrahamsen’s ethereal magic brilliantly treats Paul Griffith’s patchwork of lines from Shakespeare’s Ophelia, and there can be no better advocate for any composer than Ms. Hannigan. Mr. Nelsons’s conducting is smooth, the Bavarians’ playing revealing and true.”