Los Angeles Philharmonic and the Canadians

Les Violons du Roy
Los Angeles Times

The Los Angeles Philharmonic was under attack by French Canadians, conductor Bernard Labadie joked from the Walt Disney Concert Hall stage Friday night. Rest assured, however, it was friendly fire -- spirited and passionate music making in works by Handel and Haydn, under the command of Labadie, an expert in the Baroque and classical repertoire.

In the concert opener, Quebecois organist Richard Paré, in his hall debut, joined Labadie and the orchestra in a persuasive reading of Handel's Organ Concerto in D minor. The soloist's tempos and use of ornamentation were well-judged, and he was backed by vibrant string playing.

Next, Paré joined Labadie and another Canadian native, L.A. Philharmonic concertmaster Martin Chalifour, in Haydn's Violin Concerto in C major. Here Paré made a subtle contribution playing an original 1829 Broadwood pianoforte. But it was Chalifour who owned the stage in a memorable account, conveying sweetness of tone and bracing earthiness to the outer movements. He was especially charming in Haydn's ingenious central Adagio, his solo violin singing over the strings' pizzicato accompaniment.

After intermission, Labadie effectively turned Disney Hall into a secular church. The lights in the hall, except for "exit" signs and onstage music stands, were turned off for one of Haydn's masterpieces, "The Seven Last Words of Our Savior on the Cross." As Labadie mentioned in his opening remarks, "Darkness is embedded in the DNA of the piece."

Performed in its original version for a speaker (in this case, not a priest, but the aptly named actor William Christian) and full orchestra, the nine-movement score is essentially an oratorio without singing. Haydn imaginatively uses sonata form for each section. But Labadie and the orchestra still had to sustain interest in what amounted to an hour-long series of slow movements.

The miracle is that they succeeded brilliantly in walking a fine line between contemplative and sluggish, inviting the audience to react in either a mood of prayer or meditation. Nonbelievers were welcome, and rightly so. Haydn, who endured virulent anti-Catholic bias and was originally turned away from Protestant England in the 1780s, knew something about discrimination.

In Labadie's hands, the "Seven Words" were full of lively emotional variety, by turns plaintive, resigned and hopeful. They were even supernatural. One can only imagine the impact the final orchestral "terremoto," or earthquake said to have occurred at Christ's death, had on that first audience in a darkened Spanish church in 1787. As Labadie proved, this work still packs quite a punch.