Labadie leads CSO in vital and stylish Handel evening

Wed Nov 02, 2011 at 9:38 pm

By Lawrence A. Johnson

Bernard Labadie led the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in an all-Handel program Wednesday night at Symphony Center.

Bernard Labadie provided one of last year’s musical highlights directing a moving and idiomatic Lenten account of Bach’s St. John Passion with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra.

The French-Canadian conductor was back at Symphony Center Wednesday night with the CSO, this time in lighter Baroque fare yet delivering performances no less vital or enjoyable.

This week’s all-Handel program is presenting the complete Water Music — i.e., all three suites — plus a pair of the composer’s organ concertos.

Wednesday’s abbreviated Afterwork Masterworks program contained just the first two suites and the Organ Concerto No. 1. But with exactly one hour of music and Handel’s greatest Water Music hits included, the short program offered a neat and concise Handel evening in itself.

As a Baroque specialist, Labadie is a finely judged mix of unstuffy period manners and engaging musicianship. While he is sparing with string vibrato, there’s no lack of rhythmic subtlety or expressive detailing and these Handel performances were stylish, buoyant and consistently delightful.

The versatility and flexibility of Chicago Symphony Orchestra musicians is a given, of course, but it’s still striking how quickly they can morph into a crack Baroque band under an historically informed conductor like Labadie.

The Suite No. 1 in F major from Handel’s Water Music set the tone with bracing accents and rhythmic vigor. Michael Henoch’s gracefully floated oboe solo in the Adagio rendered questions of historical instrumentation wholly irrelevant. In the celebrated theme of the third movement, Daniel Gingrich and James Smelser provided wonderfully stylish and elegant horn playing in the exposed stratospheric writing with hairpin dynamic marking.

Handel’s organ concertos are not really vehicles for flashy fireworks; in fact, the Organ Concerto No. 1, heard Wednesday, ends in a graceful Andante.

Making his CSO debut, Richard Paré’s light-fingered and understated virtuosity proved ideally suited to this music. A longtime collaborator with Labadie as founding keyboard player of the conductor’s Quebec-based Les Violins du Roy, Paré’s skillfully chosen flute-like registers offered an ideal mix of intimacy and projection and the soloist showed nimble articulation in the Allegro movement.

There were a few fleeting imprecisions Wednesday but the playing of the reduced CSO chamber orchestra was largely tight and polished and the musicians seemed to be enjoying themselves immensely. In the Suite No. 2 Mark Ridenour and Tage Larsen delivered superb trumpet playing as Handel’s main theme is batted between them, the horns and strings.

Labadie brought out the dance inspiration throughout the Water Music suites with precisely pointed rhythms. In the first chair this week, associate concertmaster Stephanie Jeong continues to impress, contributing notably fizzing violin solos on what sounded like a gut string, period instrument.

The program will be repeated with the addition of the Organ Concerto No. 4 and the Third Suite from the Water Music 8 p.m. Thursday, Friday, and Saturday and 3 p.m. Sunday.; 312-294-3000.

Posted in Performances

Leave a Comment