Several years ago Bernard Labadie stopped counting Messiahs after he had conducted more than 100 performances.
“I can’t tell you how many, but it is definitely the piece I have done the most in my career.”
He’ll do another with his choir La Chapelle de Quebec at the National Arts Centre this week. The Messiah in Southam Hall will be his first conducted inside the centre.
Despite the many, many, many performances, he’s not tired of the work written by Handel in 1741.
“It is an absolute, total, masterpiece,” Labadie said in an interview with ARTSFILE. “It’s very dramatic.”
When Handel wrote the work, Labadie said, he was in the midst of a bit of a slump and in desperate need of a hit.
“In the late 1730s and the early 1740s, his opera business was failing in London. That was a big low for him in his life.
“He needed a new venture to revitalize his career and the oratorio in English became his new vehicle of choice. Messiah is one of the first ones he did. It is one of the ones that had a lot of success and was very important during his life.”
After Handel’s death, Messiah’s reputation just kept growing. As we know it became a staple of the repertoire and of the Victorian tradition “which explains why piece is so popular, especially in the English speaking world,” Labadie says.
“That doesn’t explain why its original purpose was diverted to Christmas. But at some point in its life, it was kidnapped by tradition and associated with Christmas which I totally like.”
The oratorio was originally intended to be an Easter piece. But, in Canada at least, whenever people have tried, “it hasn’t worked out. People really think it is a Christmas piece and for them to see Messiah offered in March or April seems very weird,” Labadie said.
It is still, he noted, performed sometimes at Easter in Europe especially on the continent.
Labadie, who is based in Quebec City but has a window on the anglo world, says there is no difference between performances in Quebec and the rest of the country.
“It’s easily explainable by the fact that French speaking Quebec has been surrounded by an ocean of English speaking people. The Anglo tradition of Messiah has trickled into Quebec culture. It is every bit as popular in Quebec or Montreal as elsewhere in Canada.
“The only thing I might say is that people know less here of the tradition of standing up for the Hallelujah Chorus. Some do, but francophones rarely do it.”
And it’s not because of an anti-royalist sentiment, he said. It’s simply that people don’t know the tradition.
“In Quebec City concerts I see very few doing it. In Montreal, I see more more. But even in Montreal not everyone does it.” He’s even seen concerts where one lone British tourist will stand.
“To me it’s like the seventh inning stretch during Take Me Out to the Ball Game. It’s a nice moment to stretch in a long performance of about two hours and 40 minutes.”
Messiah is indeed a long oratorio. That is one reason why Labadie moves quickly in a performance.
“I am from the performance practice world and I’m certainly not interested in the big flabby tempos that used to come with the big choirs and big orchestras performing it.
“I hope my tempos are felt and heard as logical and better suited to express the drama and the story. We have to remember that Messiah tells a story we have heard so often we tend to forget it.”
One reason Messiah endures is the quality of the music and the quality of the drama as contained in the libretto by Charles Jennens.
It is, in effect, a sacred opera, Labadie said. That’s because Handel was still at heart an opera composer and would remain so until he died.
“Messiah has to be seen as sacred opera. Operatic to me means being aware of the progress of the story — where are the moments of tension? Where are the moments of release?
“Handel builds these big oratorios in a very different way than Bach does. Bach always builds cathedrals.
“Handel tells a story the way he has learned to tell it through the operatic form which means he starts in a rather low key way in the overture. Then you hear an Accompagnato with the tenor. In Comfort Ye, there is a subtle shift from E minor to E major.
“That change, because it is in a small setting, becomes very big. Then the first chorus is started by the altos in the lower part of their register. Handel doesn’t start with everything full out. He pulls out the stops one by one.”
In Handel’s music there is meaning in everything, not just in the text. For example, “at the darkest moments, when we hear the sopranos and basses in (the chorus) Surely sing the chastisement there is a segment in A flat major,” Labadie said. “It is a key that is very far from D major which is the key of light and the key of Hallelujah and the Amen chorus.
“Royal composers had a catalogue of motives and formulas used represent certain things. Handel’s educated audience would understand the symbolism inherent in the various motives.”
Another thing about Messiah: “People forget how difficult and demanding it is on performers, especially the choir. That is because it is sung by so many amateur choirs of every level around the world. There are movements that are easier to sing but there is some highly virtuosic music for the choir.”
The problem for some orchestras, he said, (“and I’m not talking about NACO here”) “they do it every year as their cash cow for Christmas time. They do it with limited rehearsal time because everybody knows it and everybody has done it for years.
“This is the kiss of death for the piece.”
Labadie says that he will refuse to do a Messiah with less than four rehearsals. And “when I do four rehearsals I do an abridged version. I don’t do the whole thing.” In Ottawa about 25 minutes of music will have been cut.
“It’s extremely rare that symphony orchestras do the whole thing if only for reasons of union regulation. Messiah has the length of an opera. The concert world has adapted it by making cuts.
“When I do it in Quebec City and in Montreal I do the whole thing.”
Save for the NAC Orchestra, Labadie says he’s pretty much stopped doing Messiah with symphony orchestras.
He said that’s because he wants to keep the piece fresh.
“I want to be in love with it. It’s important to care for the things you like the most. In spite of my best efforts it has happened over the years that I have done some half baked performances partly because of lack of rehearsal time and partly because the vast majority of symphony orchestra’s don’t speak 18th century musical language on a regular basis.
“Very often Messiah is the only 18th century piece in their entire season. As someone from the performance practice world, it’s like giving a crash course in a foreign language. Some orchestras are more successful than others.
Labadie was brought up in the world of period practice.
“The only instrument I ever played in my life is the recorder. I was a mediocre recorder player turned horrible singer in university.
“When you look at that combination, it leads inevitably to conducting. I understood early on that I was better making others sing and play.”
He fell in love with period recordings as a teenager and ever since “there never has been any other way of looking at that music.
“At the same time one has to remember that the purpose of performance practice is not to recreate the music of the past or to try and make it sound that way it sounded in 18th century.
“First of all we will never know how it sounded because there are no recordings. But if we could hear actual 18th century performances maybe we would be shocked and very disappointed.”
The purpose of performance practice is to go back to the sources and to look at music as written.
“Then we use the knowledge we have … to make up our mind about what a real modern performance of that music should be.
“It is a way of getting rid of the many layers of varnish that have been added over the centuries. Think of what happened when people saw what was hiding behind the layers of candle wax smoke in the Sistine Chapel.
When you strip the music down to the wood, you can then add layers if you choose, he said.
“Going back to the original doesn’t limit you, it frees you. It gives you larger tool box to work from.”
Labadie founded La Chapelle and Les Violins du Roy in 1985. Since 1997 the choir has been made up of professional singers from across Canada.
When assembling a choir Labadie said he is influenced by the English choral tradition, the German tradition and a dose of Italian passion.
“My model would be the Monteverdi choir, if I had to pick one. It comes from English tradition but has a lot more meat. That’s my model.
“In order to deliver the whole gamut of passion and effects and colours you need a choir that can sing in many different ways. It must be able to be super pure and clear like a cathedral choir but when it gets to big moments of passion then it needs more drama.
“I like to build a choral sound the way we harmonize an 18th century organ. With the lower frequencies you have a larger sound as you go higher it has to become clearer and more pure.
“You will expect sopranos that vibrate very little or not at all. From the basses it’s normal to hear some of that. Their sound will be warmer and larger.”
This allows for ornaments such as vibrato to be added.