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After a long journey from lymphoma, Bernard Labadie is back in the conductor’s stand

“I escaped, but, really, by a thread,” Bernard Labadie says of his recovery from stage IV lymphoma, hemophagocytosis and an induced coma. He and chamber group Les Violons du Roy return for Disney Hall concert.
“I escaped, but, really, by a thread,” Bernard Labadie says of his recovery from stage IV lymphoma, hemophagocytosis and an induced coma. He and chamber group Les Violons du Roy return for Disney Hall concert.
(Ivan Kashinsky)

For more than 30 years, Bernard Labadie has cultivated a reputation as “the 18th century man.” As founding conductor of the chamber group Les Violons du Roy in his native Quebec, he has championed “performance practice” — performance technique appropriate to the era in which pieces were composed.

Labadie and Les Violons return to Walt Disney Concert Hall on Wednesday for a program of Bach, with special guest Alexandre Tharaud on piano. It’s the conductor’s first appearance in L.A. since August 2013 — and a concert that once seemed against all odds.

In early 2014, at age 51, Labadie was diagnosed with stage IV lymphoma. Ultimately, he required a stem cell donation, and he was in an induced coma for a month.

“I escaped,” he said, “but, really, by a thread. I consider myself very, very lucky to be alive right now.”

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Labadie recently spoke about the long journey back to the conductor’s stand for this Q&A, which has been edited for length:

Did it feel like a plummet when you got the diagnosis?

I hit an 18-wheeler. [He laughs.] I went from basically just being tired to facing a life-threatening disease. I didn’t have only lymphoma. I was also suffering from a weird syndrome called hemophagocytosis. Basically, your blood becomes empty, and you lose your whole immune system. That syndrome needs to be identified and treated very quickly because it can kill you in a matter of weeks.

Did it feel like you were fighting for your life?

Definitely. Especially after the first wave of treatments failed. They were preparing me for what they call an auto-transplant. They basically kill your blood with heavy chemotherapy and radiotherapy, and then give you back your own stem cells, and your whole blood system regenerates. That strategy didn’t work out for me — the lymphoma roared back and ate up all the stem cells. That’s when doctors realized they needed to go to another level: the allogeneic transplant. You receive stem cells, but from a foreign donor. One of the keys to the success of that procedure is finding a perfect match as a donor, and that’s when I got extremely lucky, because my sister was a perfect match. And yet the procedure was extremely difficult. They had to keep me in an artificial coma for a month.

What was the hardest part of it for you?

I would say it came in the second phase of chemotherapy, after the auto stem-cell transplant failed. I really realized that there was a significant chance of me not surviving. That second chemotherapy lasted for almost two months — staying at home but being barely able to walk and do basic things, taking humongous amounts of cortisone and suffering from the side effects. I lost about half of my muscle weight from the coma.

My sister came to live with me for three months. I came back to work only in December of last year. And to be very honest, the rehab process is actually not over. So right now, for instance, I’m conducting sitting down. I don’t use a baton anymore, because there’s a medication that I take that makes me shake a lot. And, of course, my own level of energy is not what it used to be. So it’s kind of a new world out there for me to learn.

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How did this brush with death alter the way you thought about yourself or your career?

At the same time, it widens the perspective and makes it smaller. There are things that mattered a lot for me before but now are not so important. It’s really about life, which for me means people. When I say it also makes it smaller ... conductors tend to be natural planners. Your diary becomes full one, two, three years in advance. I don’t even know what tomorrow will be made of.

The past three weeks, I was feeling extremely weak because there was some imbalance in my medication. We’re talking about two years after the actual diagnosis. When I have a good day, I’m just happy about it, because the following day might not be that good.

It seems corny to ask you about the healing power of music ...

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It’s not corny. It’s an actual fact. If music’s been the center of your life for 30 or 40 years, it is definitely one of the strongest sources of comfort and hope that one can find. As soon as I had enough energy to focus more on music, I really, literally fed on it — especially the idea of returning to my orchestra and my choir [La Chapelle de Québec]. That was a major incentive to go back to work and kick my own behind to go through the rehab process. And being reunited with them has been such a joy.

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Les Violons du Roy

Where: Walt Disney Concert Hall, 111 S. Grand Ave., Los Angeles

When: 8 p.m. Wednesday

Tickets: $58-$116 (subject to change)

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Info: (323) 850-2000, www.laphil.org


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