Canadian condutor Bernard Labadie conducts the Cleveland Orchestra in Rameau, Neruda and Handel this weekend (April 29-May 2). We reached him in Quebec City to talk about his debut with the Orchestra.
Mike Telin: Thank you so much for taking the time to talk and congratulations on all of your successes during the past few months.
Bernard Labadie: Thank you very much, and it has been a very good year.
MT: In addition, you will be making your Cleveland Orchestra debut next week.
BL: Yes, absolutely. It is quite exciting actually.
MT: You also made your Metropolitan Opera debut this season.
BL: Yes and I also did my Concertgebouw debut as well.
MT: We must not forget the rave reviews you received for your New York performances of Handel’s ‘Messiah’ and the Bach ‘Christmas Oratorio’ with Les Violons du Roy and La Chapelle de Quebec.
BL: Yes, the performances went very well.
MT: Regarding the program for next week, I see you are doing Handel’s ‘Water Music’. Will that be the complete or just one or two of the suites.
BL: We’ll be doing all three suites, so that will be the whole second half. It is actually a very substantial second half.
MT: The first half will be the Neruda ‘Trumpet Concerto’ with Michael Sachs as well as your own arrangement of a suite from Rameau’s opera ‘Dardanus’. Can you tell me a little bit about the Rameau?
BL: I won’t tell you the entire story because that would be a lot longer then just playing the music, but Dardanus is one of Rameau’s first major operas. Like most of his operas, there is a significant amount of purely orchestral music that is intended for ballet. We will be performing a short suite of about fifteen minutes of excerpts from that music. If you were to play all of the orchestral music from that opera you would have over an hour’s worth of music. It is a fascinating piece, and for me, it really shows Rameau at his very best, in terms of instrumental colors. Although the parts are not written, there is room for percussion, which we will be adding to bring out an even more amazing flavor. For people who are more used to the standard names of the Baroque repertoire, for example Bach and Handel, or Telemann and Vivaldi, this will be strikingly different music. The colors, the harmony, the way he uses the orchestra — the bassoons have an important role — it really is a French set up. There are a lot of instruments on the top voice, flutes and oboes in unison with the violins, and the violas are divided, which is very typical of the French opera orchestra writing. So all of this makes for a very striking opener, and something that is off the beaten path.
MT: I for one am looking forward to it. It is a new piece to me and I am sure that the audiences will enjoy it. Regarding the Neruda concerto, did you choose that, or did Michael?
BL: I did not, Michael did. I did conduct it a few years ago. It is originally written for high horn and not for trumpet, but the technique of playing in this register on high horns has basically vanished, so now trumpet players have acquired this concerto. It is a very beautiful piece.
MT: Back to the ‘Water Music’, what attracts you to this piece?
BL: I have always been a fan of Handel’s music. I conduct it regularly, and he is a composer that I feel connections with. This piece is a wonderful piece for a modern symphony orchestra that wants to tackle this repertoire because it’s on a larger scale, and it has a lot of variety. There are 21 different movements but some of them are grouped in pairs, so it doesn’t feel like 21 movements. It is basically a catalogue of all the dance forms that were used in Handel’s time. There is a lot for the wind players to do, which is not always the case in 18th century music. The piece is divided into three suites. The first one is really features the horns, oboes and bassoons, but mostly the horns. The second suite, which we will perform last, in addition to the two horns and two oboes, also features trumpets, and I have even written out a timpani part, because it was certainly customary to add one. The third suite, which we will do second, is more of a chamber music spirit. It uses the recorder and the flute, so it makes for a lot of orchestral colors and variety.
MT: You mentioned that the Handel is a good piece for modern orchestras. Being so allied with period music and period instrument orchestras, when you stand in front of a modern orchestra, what is your approach?
BL: First of all is that it always remains music and it obeys to the internal construction of phrases, as well as tensions and releases. It is not any different from most the repertoire they perform on a daily basis, it is just that the means, and the tools are different. And of course you cannot turn even the best symphony orchestra in the world, which many people say is the Cleveland Orchestra, into a period orchestra or period sounds band in a couple of days. So the idea is to help the players find the spirit of the music, and of course, I have to be very technical because I need to explain, especially for string players how to use the bow and what kind of sound you want to produce. I bring my own music, so everything is already written into the parts. This is something I always do, such as when I did the Water Music with the New York Philharmonic, and the St. John Passion with the Chicago Symphony. Even though I do work a lot with chamber orchestras and period orchestras, I am used to working with modern orchestras as well. Because of this, I feel comfortable translating the necessities of this music into a language that makes sense to modern players. When you have an orchestra that is used to refinement and used to a more chamber music approach to orchestral playing — which is most definitely the case with the Cleveland Orchestra, it really should not be a problem. I am looking forward to this first encounter with the Cleveland Orchestra very much. Also, they are not new to this approach because I understand that they work with Mr. Koopman, and if they work with him, this will not be strange at all.
MT: Yes, and the Cleveland Orchestra can adjust very quickly.
MT: I do know that they are looking forward to having you here.
BL: I look forward to being there. It is the last of the big five that I have yet to conduct, and to some extent, because of its long tradition, for me it might be the most common match in terms of finding a common language.
MT: You are also here for the final concert of their new Fridays @ 7 series, which is an initiative they started this year in order to offer something a little different in order to attract new audiences. I am wondering what your opinion is when it comes to audience development initiatives? What do you think works and what do you think doesn’t work?
BL: Well I am certainly all for the idea of breaking the traditional boundaries of the concert platform. The idea of all those people dressed in long gowns and tails, that stuffy look that so many people associate with classical music — some people are still very attached to it, which is totally fine. But I do think it is important for any institution, especially an institution that has such deep roots like the Cleveland Orchestra to find different ways of attracting a younger audience. Not only a younger audience, but also to open the ears, hearts, and minds of their regular audience to what is happening in the world, because the world has changed dramatically. The business has changed dramatically in the past few years. As you know, the recording business is evolving almost on a daily basis almost to the point to where we have a hard time keeping track of it. So it is very necessary that we do it, and I am very curious to see how the Fridays @ 7 works and how people react to it. I have certainly been associated with initiatives of this nature with other orchestras, and wherever it has happened it has always been very successful, and generally people end up having a different take on the concert experience, and even on the music. In my own orchestra here in Quebec City, we now have a daytime series that is becoming very popular. There are actually two of these series, and with one of them there is always a lot of explanation about the music, as well as examples being given. Sometimes it might seem a bit complicated, like with Bach’s Musical Offering. Recently it was Bernstein’s Serenade for Violin, Strings and Percussion. Whenever we do this kind of music, we try to make contact with the people so they do know what is going on. On the other afternoon series, there is an informal coffee and cookies session with the audience and the musicians, and people enjoy that. I think it is important to re-establish the link to the audience in a way that is more connected in different ways. We need to adapt, and remain open minded.
MT: Keeping with the audience development theme but into a different gene of music, you have a real passion for Baroque Opera, which sometimes can be a bit difficult to attract audiences to, especially in North America. I am wondering what you see as the primary barriers to attracting audiences to this art form?
BL: Speaking of the North American market, there is one very important barrier, and that is the size of the halls. None of these works were intended for a theatre that is any bigger then 600 seats. It is feasible to do a Handel opera at the Met, or at the Lyric Opera in Chicago, and it has been done, and I think it has to be done. While it is possible to make it accessible, it is far more difficult then it is with the repertoire that was intended to be performed in these very large venues. The voices that are requested in Puccini and Verdi are more naturally at ease in larger halls, rather then countertenors and light sopranos — the kind of voices that are requested by the operatic repertoire of the 18th century. For me, that is one important thing. The second thing is that with opera companies in North America you have a house orchestra that usually not familiar at all with this kind of repertoire. While some of them are amazingly gifted and open minded, like the Met orchestra, with whom I did Magic Flute back in September — of course that is not baroque opera, but it is still 18th century opera — and I was amazed by how flexible and open minded the orchestra was. I approach Mozart from behind, that is, coming from the baroque period. I did have my own music with the bowings and markings, but they caught on very quickly and easily. Now, not all house orchestras are that flexible, but even if they are, the sheer amount of music that you have digest in a rather limited amount of rehearsal time is often a problem. It is also difficult to find voices that have the flexibility to approach this repertoire, and are familiar with all of its stylistic necessities, and who have voices that can fill these big houses. Very often there is a compromise, which is either on the size [of the voice] or on the flexibility [of the voice]. There are not a lot of people who really possess both. In terms of the repertoire itself, of course the ways human passions are expressed are quite different from the romantic repertoire that has become so common in our houses. So for an audience that is accustomed to Verdi and Puccini, even Rossini, there is a gap that needs to be filled. I think there are so many inventive directors who have been working on the baroque repertoire, that I think it is becoming more accessible. This movement comes much more from Europe then it does from North America, but it is expanding slowly here, and I think it is a very good thing. What I hope is that we will see more of this repertoire presented in the right conditions, that is, in theatres that are not so big that you can actually enjoy the intimacy of the personal contact that one needs to have with the interpreters. To be able to fully appreciate the richness of the continuo playing in a Monteverdi opera, this is hardly achievable in a 3,000 seat hall. You could pile harpsichords and theorbos on top of one another, but there is no way that they can have the expressive power that they have in a smaller place. For me, that is probably the main problem, although there is hope. I think it is fantastic that in spite of the difficulties, the technical difficulties, the North American companies are tackling this repertoire.
MT: I also think it is great that there are people such as yourself who remain dedicated to art form in spite of all the difficulties that you have just pointed out.
BL: Trailblazing is not always easy but it is full of rewards.
MT: Finally a question that I have wanted to ask you for a long time: your orchestra, Les Violons du Roy’s signature is playing on modern string instruments with period bows. Was that your invention, and if so, why did you begin approaching the music in this way, and why do you think it works?
BL: Well I’m not sure I would say I invented it, but we were certainly one of the groups to do it on a regular basis. When I started the orchestra, first of all, we were all very young. We are now about to complete our 26th season, but I am not yet an old man. I was 21 when I founded Les Violons and most of my colleagues were around the same age. We really didn’t know what we were doing, and thank God, because if we had known, perhaps we would not have gone through all of this. Initially what I was hearing in my head was a period instrument orchestra, but it was not really possible, especially in the early 1980’s in a small city like Quebec City, to gather enough people of quality to perform on period instruments. So we started on modern instruments, hoping to at some point make the switch to period instruments. And the use of baroque bows was seen as the first step to making that change. Somehow we got stuck there because we realized that it was a very successful combination, and very early it became our trademark. There are advantages to that formula. I think that about 70% of the so-called baroque sound comes from the bow rather then the instrument itself. Certainly the capacity to articulate in the baroque style is mostly associated with the bow. Also using modern instruments certainly has its good side, for example controlling the intonation is easier on metal strings then it is on gut strings. It also has more power and because we are also a touring orchestra performing in all sorts of venues around North America, to have this extra power is sometimes a good thing, especially in larger and dryer halls. Of course, I still strongly believe that the ideal approach to this music is the period instrument orchestra, if the conditions are right, but it is not the only approach. We need to keep in mind that the instrument is not the goal, it is only the channel. What really matters is the music. The instrument is only the extension of the musician’s heart and soul, and it is certainly possible to play in a good baroque style on modern instruments. So it was only a successful experiment that became our trademark. I also think it is a model for orchestras in smaller cities and communities. In a city like London or Paris, you most likely would not need to do this, because you have so many great period instrument orchestras. You even have orchestras that specialize, such as only performing Italian music or French music or only very early repertoire. But again to be able to have an orchestra in a smaller city who can change sounds simply by changing the bow and pushing some buttons in the mind, I think is a great thing. I don’t present it as the ideal model, or a better model only a model that works. I also think that Les Violons also represents the way the musical world is evoulving: more and more we have musicians and orchestras that have one foot in the past and one in the present, and that makes for a better future.