Idiomatic Bach from Labadie and the SLSO

From time to time, the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra temporarily transforms itself into a Baroque band. When it does, the switch calls for a change both in style and the numbers of players. And although the SLSO uses modern rather than period instruments, the results are convincing and enjoyable.

Among the reasons for that success are the conductors brought in to lead those programs. This weekend, Baroque and Classical repertoire specialist Bernard Labadie takes the podium.

Labadie, who recently returned to conducting after enduring months of arduous treatments for aggravated Stage IV lymphoma, sat on a piano bench to lead an all-Bach program Friday morning. That was the only suggestion of any difficulties; the idiomatic elegance of his music-making has not suffered.

Dance suites were a popular form in the 17th and 18th centuries, but Johann Sebastian Bach, as prolific a composer as he was, wrote only four orchestral suites. No worries: They’re all up to Bach’s exacting standards.

Labadie and the SLSO performed all four of the Orchestral Suites on this program. Originally scheduled in numerical order, with the smaller-scale No. 1 in C major and No. 2 in B minor in the first half, and the bigger No. 3 in D major and No. 4 in D major in the second, Labadie changed them up (presumably for variety) to 1 and 3 to start and 2 and 4 after intermission.

No. 1 set the tone for what was to come. A group of popular dances in assorted styles, from gavottes to minuets, they were played with excellent articulation, spirit and quiet energy. The first bows went, appropriately, to principal oboe Jelena Dirks, oboe Michelle Duskey and principal bassoon Andrew Cuneo.

No. 3 almost doubled the number of strings and added timpani and a quartet of trumpets. This is perhaps the most popular of the suites, with the beloved Air (known as Air on a G String) as a tranquil island in a mostly energetic piece.

The second half brought principal flute Mark Sparks as soloist and, effectively, first among equals in a small ensemble. Sparks has a fluid technique and golden tone, shown off here to great advantage.

The short program came to a conclusion with No. 4. This is the biggest of the suites, in every sense, with a larger ensemble and a more exuberant spirit. Alone of the four suites, it has a bright, happy movement called “Rejouissance.”

In terms of both spirit and execution, this was a first-rate program, although there were occasional issues in the trumpets in No. 3.

One more person deserves a mention: the hard-working harpsichordist, Mark Shuldiner.

Sarah Bryan Miller, St. Louis Post-Dispatch
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