The very first piece I conducted as a professional, just over 45 years ago, was Felix Mendelssohn’s The Hebrides Overture. It has been a constant favourite and held a special place in my musical heart even after exchanging the baton for the pen in 2001.
From the very first measure of conductor Bernard Labadie’s program in Carnegie Hall, I became immediately concerned that I was in for two hours of disappointing music making. Sadly, those fears were realized.
There are a few conductors in every generation that eschew the baton for a literal “hands on” approach. Very occasionally (immediately thinking of Franco Mannino’s brief tenure with the National Arts Centre Orchestra in Ottawa, who set the world speed record for the second movement of Schumann’s C-major symphony), the results were electrifying, if not musically satisfying. But like Leonard Bernstein—love him or leave him—there was no doubt that the feisty Italian got what he wanted.
Labadie’s digits-only approach has several flaws. The most serious being that—for the most part—both hands parrot each other, but not exactly. This leaves the members of this wonderful ensemble—largely depending on their viewpoint—faced with at least two choices for the downbeat, making every opening measure and critical cadential moments very untogether. Couple that with a harmonic approach that is most often vertical rather than horizontal, along with the astonishing lack of reading between the composers’ lines (it is difficult to write down small but crucial breaths at key compositional climaxes, transitions or tempo shifts), whether Mendelsohn or Bach, all of the results had a feeling of “hurrah, we got there” rather than, “yes we most certainly have arrived.”
And so The Hebrides was a two-star survey rather than a full-blown travel adventure (featuring some unreliable trumpets who redeemed themselves later). The symphony was surprising in Labadie’s decision to fly into each movement “attacca” (barely a second of rest), robbing the audience of a chance to digest what had just been heard before venturing into a vastly different landscape.
In between the romanticism, pianist Beatrice Rana offered up Bach’s D-minor and F-minor concerti. The former was too brittle by half in the outer movements (and as my ever-patient piano teacher, Gertrude Tanton, often scolded, was neither centred or secure) while the later offered up the finest music making of the night in the marvellously liquid Largo (still, the pizzicati accompaniments remained close but no cigar). Both soloist and conductor need to find a way of letting the music settle into its own skin rather than playing too many rounds of catch me if you can.
Still, a constant delight was the first violin section, which constantly provided a splendid radiancy as they reached into the heavens. And the principal clarinet also soared to the heights with aplomb or flew readily with the wind (symphony: Vivace non troppo). With so much talent on stage, more’s the pity that Labadie couldn’t find a way of harnessing it and revealing the true meaning of such venerable compositions. JWR