Guest conductor Bernard Labadie led the Kansas City Symphony through a trio of pieces composed and premiered in Paris, reflecting the changing predilections of the Parisian audience from the Baroque to Romantic eras.
Labadie engaged the audience that filled Helzberg Hall on Friday night with a discussiopn of the works and his family connection, as French-Canadian immigrants, to Paris of the 18th century, enamored with the exotic new world. His vigorous style of conducting was likewise engaging, with sweeping motions and decisive gestures, making constant demands on the orchestra.
Jean-Philippe Rameau was the most popular opera composer in Paris during the mid-18th century; “Dardanus” was one of his masterpieces. The orchestra performed a suite selected from the instrumental numbers, with overture, ballet music and battle scene.
The orchestra’s light touch made way for wholesome fortes, swelling emphatically. Percussion added an exotic flair and drama, with pronounced castanet work. The low strings held a stately presence, while the upper voices offered beautiful ornamentations, with a spritely piccolo duet. Continuous motion from violin tremolos, a galloping melody and bass drum rolls created an invigorating final selection.
Mozart wrote Symphony no. 31 in D major to ingratiate himself with the Parisian audience, filling it with the latest trends, yet instilled with Mozartian charm. The heavy, opening chords blended warmly, then the chattering thematic material directed attention to each voice. A vigorous third movement pulsed with energetic runs.
While the premiere was enthusiastically received, Mozart, eager to please, wrote an alternative second movement, the languorous Andantino, in a rounded triple-time feel. Labadie and the orchestra surprised the audience by playing the original option, as well, with its lively, more robust themes.
Gabriel Fauré intended for his “Requiem” to express mercy instead of damnation. It was poignant and subtle, especially the drastic pianissimos, despite the forces of full orchestra, organ and 150+ person Kansas City Symphony Chorus.
Two fellow Canadians joined as soloists: soprano Shannon Mercer and baritone Joshua Hopkins. Mercer presented the pleading “Pie Jesu” solo with an adamant presence. Hopkins’ rich voice and lamenting interpretation balanced well with the ensemble.
Fauré’s judicious control of color used the low string voices extensively, with otherworldly harmonies. Brass was used sparingly to brilliant effect and the organ, performed by Jan Kraybill, offered fluid accompaniment. The chorus voices floated celestially over top.
It was a fitting, though unintentional, tribute to President John F. Kennedy, who was assassinated 50 years ago that day.