Sunday, January 17, 2010

Kansas City Symphony: Labadie Conducts Mozart and Schubert

Music with a nod to the "classic era" comprised the program of this weekend's concerts of the Kansas City Symphony. Fitting since the guest conductor, Bernard Labadie, has made a name for himself as one of the premiere interpreters of baroque and classical music through the Canadian ensembles he founded, "Les Violons du Roy" and La Chapelle de Québec, in Montréal. For his debut performance with the Kansas City Symphony, Labadie chose some well known and charming gems from the classical era, Schubert's sunny Symphony # 5 in Bb, and from the pen of Mozart the Chaconne from "Idomeneo", Piano Concerto # 18 in Bb K 456 and the Symphony # 39 in Eb. Italian pianist Benedetto Lupo was soloist in the concerto.

Using a reduced but totally modern orchestra, Labadie created a tight but lyrical ensemble from the players. This particularly benefited the lightly scored Schubert which overall was a crisp, perfectly paced performance that also spotlighted the ever present lyricism. Labadie also allowed the bits of drama and tension their turn, always keeping them in the flow of the music, never putting them in garish light. The minuetto was poised and genteel while showing the way towards the more developed scherzi Schubert and others were to add to the symphony's order. As one would expect from a classical specialist, a clean, witty and elegant performance.

Benedetto Lupo joined the orchestra and Labadie for an equally elegant and dramatic Mozart Piano Concerto # 18. As befitting an elegant and refined performance, Lupo was refreshingly free of excessive mannerisms and showy gestures, letting the piano embroider the fabric of the piece with long, clearly defined yet elaborate lines. The orchestra, with some wonderful work from the small wind forces (pairs of oboes and bassoons, 1 flute and 2 horns), underpinned the subtle drama of the shifting tonality where sometimes a single change of a note created a whole new feeling. Lupo milked the long lines of the expressive Andante central movement, with the orchestra softly yet firmly underpinning the melodies. From my point, it looked like Lupo took the conductor by surprise in the attacca to the final Rondo. If so, the distraction did not hinder the soloist and orchestra in their romp through the sparkling finale. As in the Schubert, another elegant, intelligently paced performance.

The second half was devoted to Mozart. The Chaconne from Idomeneo served as an interesting and dramatic opener. Closing the concert, the Symphony #39 in Eb is a member of the final quartet masterpieces of Mozart's symphonic cannon. Somewhat overshadowed, in my opinion, by the power of the last two (40 and 41) and the popular and colorful 38th "Prague", the 39th is by all means one of Mozart's most sublime utterances. If it lacks the gravitas and drama of the last two, it certainly makes up for it in charm and graceful, soaring melodies. Again, Labadie chose an intelligent, middle of the road tempo, allowing the music to soar, the subtle drama and mood shifts to shine, but never lagging or fussy.

Normally, a concert of early Schubert and Mozart would merit a yawn or even a pass from me, but with a master of the style in charge, the concert was a delight from first to last note.

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