Saturday, November 17, 2012

Labadie reaches Jupiter with Handel and Haydn

Labadie in action.
When I first heard French-Canadian conductor Bernard Labadie a few years back, I wrote, "Remember that name -  and if you get a chance to hear him . . . by all means take it."

Well, since then a lot of people have had that chance, and as a result Labadie's career has exploded, with debuts at the Met, Tanglewood, and all over the map.  He returned to the Hub last weekend in a concert with Handel and Haydn that might have been dubbed "Mozart in Context" - and quickly demonstrated that he's still got it going on, and how; his closing rendering of the "Jupiter" Symphony, conducted from memory, was the kind of home-run that brings a crowd immediately to its feet, shouting and stamping.   In fact, I admit I have a serious musical man-crush on this guy.  Smarts, sympathy, superb control and command - Labadie's got it all, plus he does what I call "full-body" conducting: the musical cues seem to ripple through every fiber of his being, so his connection with the orchestra is dramatically palpable.  With Labadie conducting, a concert is also a show.

Of course, this was also a wonderful musical statement, thoughtfully programmed and exquisitely interpreted.  The idea was clearly to compare and contrast the evening's warhorse, the "Jupiter" (No. 41) - the one H&H could count on to draw a crowd - with obscurities by the forgotten Henri-Joseph Rigel and Joseph Martin Kraus, as well as a minor Haydn symphony, No. 26 ("Lamentatione") - all three variants of what has been dubbed the "Sturm und Drang" Germanic school (with, in the case of Rigel, a lovely French largo sandwiched between two Teutonic allegros).

This is where the curation of the concert did run into an intriguing set of cross-currents, it seemed to me.  Rigel, Kraus, and Haydn seemed to be speaking to each other as much as to Mozart; or perhaps Haydn was speaking to them (although the final movement of the Kraus at least clearly counts as proto-Mozart).  And certainly both Rigel and Kraus intrigued as demonstrations of just how alluring great craft can be - I was much taken with the second and third movements of the Rigel in particular - still, did either have a unique "voice"?  It seemed that Haydn turned that corner rather early for the form; the flowing second movement of Lamentatione (partly derived from an Easter chant) exudes a depth that Rigel and Kraus lack, and the third movement abounds in that sense of subtle, almost conversational surprise that typifies this great composer.

Perhaps simply ordering the concert by composition date might have clarified all this.  At any rate, under Labadie's attentive eye, the orchestra performed all three with sensitive passion, and a pleasing sense of forward momentum - but it wasn't until the "Jupiter" that everything came together. Which is indeed appropriate, as the "Jupiter" seems to pull its entire period together and then kick it up a notch. The symphony is a landmark for many reasons; its simple size and grandeur (hence its nickname), the unprecedented complexity and inspiration of its textures, the way in which it shifts the emphasis of the form to the final movements (which here conclude with a truly stunning fugue) - all these perfections still stun audiences today.  And Labadie and his players seemed in complete command of every facet of the piece; Mozart's memorable motifs seemed to expand and intertwine just as they should, and then coalesced at the finale with a truly thrilling force.  Sometimes Labadie seemed about to levitate, in fact, as the momentum built; the strings were exquisitely supple, the winds superlative - it was the kind of performance that makes the hair on the back of your neck stand on end.  What can I say?  If you get a chance to hear Bernard Labadie conduct - by all means take it!

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