New York orchestra boosts early music with new conductor

Shaun TANDON
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(L-R) Chairman of the board of Orchestra of St. Luke's Norman Benzaquen (L), new principal conductor of the orchestra Bernard Labadie, and Orchestra Executive Director and President James Roe pose for a photograph on May 3, 2017

The Orchestra of St. Luke's in New York named master of early music Bernard Labadie as its principal conductor Wednesday, setting a new focus on advancing work predating the early 19th century.

The chamber ensemble calls itself New York's second orchestra and performs at locations across the city, with its players collectively serving as music director.

Star mezzo-soprano Susan Graham, who has frequently sung with the orchestra and serves on its board, said Labadie would fine-tune the mission of an ensemble known for versatility.

"Bernard's area of expertise will further the identity of the Orchestra of St. Luke's," she said.

Labadie, an expert in baroque, classical period and early romantic music, founded the chamber orchestra Les Violons du Roy in his native Quebec and has been artistic director both of the Opera de Quebec and Opera de Montreal.

Labadie said he wanted to "touch people directly" with great music rather than attempt to reconstruct performances from before the age of recordings.

"I am absolutely not interested in performing in an 18th-century wig and trying to fool people and make them believe this is how the music was meant to be," he said.

"Music is still about people, and the connection between performers and an audience."

- Open mind on instruments -

Labadie said he was glad the debate -- the "war," he joked -- between proponents of modern and period instruments has abated in recent years.

Instruments have evolved over time with modern versions -- such as bows for string instruments -- often significantly different in material or design than their ancestors.

Orchestra of St. Luke's -- which has commissioned more than 50 new works since it was founded in 1974 -- performs with modern instruments.

"I am a complete, total believer in period instruments and I work a lot with period instrument orchestras, but I do not believe that it is the only way to approach this repertoire," Labadie said.

"In the word 'instrument,' there is the Latin root of 'manus,' the hand. I like to think that in the same way the hand is an extension of the body, the instrument is the extension of the musical mind," he said.

Labadie succeeds the Spanish rising star Pablo Heras-Casado, who will take the new title of conductor laureate.

- Back from health scare -

Labadie's new job came after he survived a severe form of cancer, Stage 4 lymphoma. He was put in an induced coma for a month as he underwent a complicated transplant of stem cells.

The 54-year-old said he felt healthy and that a relapse was highly unlikely -- but that the experience gave him a fresh perspective on life, as well as music.

The appointment in New York "seems to be exactly what the doctor ordered, almost literally actually," he said with a laugh.

Labadie will make his debut with the orchestra on July 2 at the Caramoor Summer Music Festival near New York, one of two key annual engagements for the ensemble along with a Carnegie Hall series.

Orchestra of St. Luke's -- which initially played in a New York church of a similar name -- keeps finances stable by finding partners for most performances and recording film and Broadway scores.

In 2011, the orchestra opened the DiMenna Center for Classical Music, which has offered advanced rehearsal and recording spaces to thousands of musicians.

James Roe, the orchestra's president and executive director, said that the United States has lagged behind Europe in pursuing historical music.

With Labadie's focus, "I think we will have an even more distinct place in the pantheon of New York City music," he said.