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Entertainment & Arts

Review: Bernard Labadie’s welcome return to Disney Hall

Bernard Labadie conducts the Los Angeles Philharmonic at the Hollywood Bowl on July 30, 2013.
(Los Angeles Times)

Bernard Labadie, the Canadian conductor who had become the frequent go-to guy for 18th century music at Walt Disney Concert Hall and elsewhere in this region, returned Wednesday night with his Quebec-based chamber orchestra, Les Violons du Roy, kicking off a short North American tour.

For that alone, he and we were grateful, as Labadie has had to overcome stage 4 lymphoma during the last two years. He is not out of the woods yet; these days, he conducts seated without a baton to conserve his depleted energy. But otherwise, Labadie was pretty much his old musical self in front of this hybrid group that combines period-performance techniques with modern instruments.

One of the deviations from the hard-core, period-performance party line was the presence of transcriptions on the Disney Hall program. In a short talk after intermission, Labadie said they were very much a part of period-performance tradition back in the day. (“These guys didn’t care about authenticity,” he said.) With that in mind, Labadie made his own transcription of J.S. Bach’s Passacaglia and Fugue in C Minor, originally written for organ yet made famous in the 20th century by massive, wonderful Technicolor arrangements for symphony orchestra by Leopold Stokowski and Eugene Ormandy.

Of course, Labadie’s version was nothing like those big-thinking showpieces. Instead, it illuminated the polyphonic aspects of the piece, far more so than the symphonic transcriptions or even the organ original. The repeating underlying passacaglia theme was set forth by harpsichord, cello and bass; there were duets, a pizzicato episode, violins questioning and answering each other, a lot of dynamic
contrasts.  It sounded like a lively, long-lost Brandenburg concerto -- and it was the best thing on the program.

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The other unusual twist on the program was that each of the three remaining pieces -- all standard fare from Bach and Handel -- was preceded by a meditative prelude. Another Labadie transcription -- this time, a rather dreary one of the Gravement movement from the Organ Fantasia in G, BWV 572 -- led into the Suite No. 1 from Handel’s “Water Music,” which gradually came together with increasing spirit and careful dynamic shadings.

As a preface to Bach’s Keyboard Concerto in F Minor, BWV 1056, pianist Alexandre Tharaud played the Aria from the Pastorale in F, BWV 590, and preceded the Keyboard Concerto in D Minor, BWV 1052, with the Adagio from a Bach solo keyboard concerto (BWV 974) based on an Alessandro Marcello oboe concerto and arranged by Tharaud. As played on a defiantly anachronistic Yamaha grand piano, both short meditations seemed to anticipate Chopin’s preludes.

Tharaud pretty much continued in that poetic vein in both concertos -- very legato, delicate, genteel, heavy on the pedal, clashing with the sharper-etched manner of Labadie and Les Violons du Roy. For me, these concertos needed a lot more rhythmic definition, swing and drive than what Tharaud’s concept could accommodate.

Labadie resurfaces here next in December when he returns to the Los Angeles Philharmonic with Handel’s “Messiah.”

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