Conductor Bernard Labadie returned to the podium tonight for the first time since sickness stopped him for a year and a half of convalescence, to lead the Toronto Symphony Orchestra at Roy Thomson Hall as part of the Mozart @ 260 Festival.
Here’s what the Violons du Roy press release from October 2014 says:
Quebec City, October 20, 2014 – Bernard Labadie has announced he will resume his duties as founder of Les Violons du Roy and music director of La Chapelle de Québec during the 2015–2016 season. At that time, he will also continue his commitments as guest conductor nationally and internationally.
Mr. Labadie is being treated for a lymphoma diagnosed in May while he was slated to conduct in Freiburg, Germany. Since June he has been receiving care in Quebec City and the treatment is progressing normally. He initially canceled all his 2014 concerts in June, but because of an extended convalescence he will not be able to return to his conducting duties with Les Violons du Roy and the orchestras he was scheduled to direct until the start of the 2015-2016 concert season.
Mr. Labadie would like to take the opportunity to express his heartfelt thanks to the music lovers, musicians, and friends who have demonstrated their support and friendship by the hundreds since the onset of his illness. Their messages and encouragement have been invaluable.
So of course Labadie’s first return to the concert stage tonight was a particularly dramatic occasion. Although the Labadie you see on youtube normally conducts standing – but without a baton—tonight he conducted from a sitting position, likely still in a weakened state.
The TSO and Labadie brought us three facets of Mozart’s genius: the opera, the concerto and the symphony.
The operatic exploration consisted of excerpts from Don Giovanni, specifically the overture and a pair of arias. The chamber-sized orchestra, while employing modern instruments, seemed to be informed by the kind of historically informed performance style we sometimes hear from the COC when someone such as Harry Bicket comes to town to lead them. Labadie’s understanding of the overture is edgy, full of well-accented contrasts & witty turns of phrase. In contrast to Frederic Antoun’s lyrical reading of the romantic aria “Dalla sua pace”, Philippe Sly’s presentation of the catalogue aria was hilarious, his repertoire of voices a fascinating study in the opera buffa (in other words, comedy).
Although our concerto soloist brought another French name into the programme, this time we were watching a Parisian rather than a Quebecois, namely Alexandre Tharaud, although he has a history with Labadie.
This was a performance of great style, clean and crisp in the orchestral entries. Tharaud showed enormous energy particularly in his cadenzas.
After intermission we came to Mozart’s last symphony. I can testify that the TSO are in a groove, their playing inspired yet relaxed in the last part of their tour last week. This smaller ensemble placed at the front of the stage sounded especially good in Roy Thomson Hall, perhaps responding to the drama of the occasion and the commitment Labadie showed from the podium. The word that comes to mind is “perfection”, Labadie’s tempi as brisk as you’d expect from an exponent of the historically-informed style. The slower second movement was luscious with sensuous detail, the finale, muscular and tireless.
Next week Labadie will leads a semi-staged Mozart Requiem directed by Joel Ivany of Against the Grain Theatre. Jeff Melanson’s avowed mission to make the TSO the most innovative and most inclusive orchestra in Toronto comes to mind in this fascinating choice. Instead of the usual static standing and singing, Ivany brings something genuinely experimental to the stage. I witnessed a workshop last year that has me eager to see what Ivany & the TSO have come up with. I’m sure it will be a worthy experiment, opening new ways of understanding the Requiem.
For further insights here’s Labadie in a CBC interview.