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Bernard Labadie

For this weekend's concerts by the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra, guest conductor Bernard Labadie was charged with programming some music composed in the year 1764. The alert reader will recognize that as the year in which the city of St. Louis was founded: Hello, STL250. 

The always-welcome, always-effective Labadie obliged, with two works composed in (or almost in) the target year, and two other pieces with just the right amount of contrast to go along with them. In the process, he also provided four associate principal players in the orchestra a chance to shine as soloists, in a program that was always easy on the ears.

On Friday morning, he turned out to be an effective raconteur as well, giving some background at the start of each half. His words (charmingly rendered with a French-Canadian accent) about the first work on the program, the Suite from “Les Boréades” by Jean-Philippe Rameau (1683-1764) were particularly useful, but Labadie demonstrated the gift of providing just the right amount of information about each piece.

“Les Boréades” was written in 1763 or 4; it was in rehearsal when Rameau, thoughtlessly, died. The production was abandoned and the music lost for a century. Its first staged production took place in 1982.

The story line is old-fashioned (an annoyed god, assorted allegorical figures, a deus ex machina to save the day), but the music is charming. It's very much of the French Baroque, and received a spirited, idiomatic performance. The woodwinds deserved their solo bow, especially the flutes. 

Violinist Kristin Ahlstrom, cellist Melissa Brooks, oboist Philip Ross and bassoonist Andrew Gott were featured in Joseph Haydn's 1792 Sinfonia concertante in B-flat major. They were placed in a semicircle around Labadie, for an effect like that of a chamber group imposed atop an orchestra. The concertante is a pleasure to hear, particularly when it's played so well. The soloists made a solid ensemble; they gave sparkling performances, well-supported by both conductor and colleagues.

Haydn was back to start the second half with his Symphony No. 22, “The Philosopher,” from 1764. Unusually, its scoring includes the distinctive sound of two English horns; they, along with a pair of French horns, get the best writing in the piece, and SLSO English horn Cally Banham and Michelle Duskey took advantage of that. Associate principal Thomas Jöstlein, in particular, distinguished himself with some outstanding playing.    

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s Symphony No. 39 in E-flat major, composed in 1788, is an uncontested masterpiece of the Classical repertoire, filled with light and grace. Labadie is very much at home in that oeuvre, and led a well-balanced performance. This is a seriously joyful work, with Mozart at his best; with the SLSO in fine form, it provided the perfect ending to the performance. 


Bernard Labadie and the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra

When • 8 p.m. Saturday, 3 p.m. Sunday

Where • Powell Symphony Hall, 718 North Grand Boulevard

How much • $30-$109

More info • 314-534-1700; stlsymphony.org

Sarah Bryan Miller is the classical music critic for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch; she has also written on a variety of other topics.