Chicago Symphony Orchestra: Canadian conductor Bernard Labadie handles CSO with aplomb

05.29.09
Les Violons du Roy
Chicago Tribune

Strange are the vagaries of orchestra scheduling. Although Canadian conductor Bernard Labadie has scored successful appearances with most of the major North American orchestras, it wasn't until Wednesday night that he made his podium debut with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra.

The enjoyable program of Haydn and Mozart works, given as part of the Afterwork Masterworks series, resolved any doubts that Labadie, a Baroque specialist who directs the Canadian period instruments band Les Violons du Roy, would achieve a congenial rapport with the CSO -- unlike, say, the unfortunate John Eliot Gardiner last year.

In both Haydn's Symphony No. 94 ("Surprise") and Mozart's Symphony No. 39 ("Prague"), Labadie elicited from a reduced orchestra the crisp articulations, buoyant rhythms and sparing vibrato one associates with the historical brigade. But the man is nothing if not flexible, so his readings also boasted an elasticity of phrasing and dynamics that suggested he is completely at ease working with modern orchestras.

The CSO players seemed to welcome the clarity and lack of eccentricity with which Labadie put his ideas across. And while the robust sound and sheer vitality they brought to the Haydn symphony certainly beguiled, scattered bloopers from the principal horn (probably not the kind of surprises the audience came to hear) did not.

The Mozart symphony was a smoother ride. Labadie saw fit to highlight a wealth of instrumental detail (clarinets and horns especially) without losing steady forward impetus. A relaxed and flowing slow movement gave way to a jolly minuet and a wonderfully airy finale.

Benedetto Lupo, who gave a beautiful, shapely, unaffected account of Mozart's Piano Concerto No. 18 in B-Flat (K.456), is another artist who had to make his name elsewhere before the CSO beckoned. The Italian pianist, winner of the bronze medal in the 1989 Van Cliburn International Piano Competition in Ft. Worth, also was appearing with the orchestra for the first time.

His pianism was never less than gracious, the musical sensibility behind it generous and true. Labadie's supportive accompaniment had a similar feeling of naturalness, as if he and Lupo were breathing the same pure Mozartean air. I hope the CSO invites both musicians back in the very near future.

The program will be repeated Friday and Saturday nights, and Sunday afternoon, with the addition of the chaconne from Mozart's opera "Idomeneo."