Bernard Labadie’s interest is, in his own words, “old music.” The Canadian conductor is founder and director of two renowned early-music ensembles, the chamber orchestra Les Violons du Roy and its complementary choir La Chapelle de Québec. Saturday night, in a performance that completed the second week of the Music Academy of the West’s Summer Festival, Labadie directed 65 Academy fellows in a historically informed approach to 18th-century music. In his opening remarks, Labadie made clear that changing style and relearning technique was often difficult for professional players, let alone young student musicians, but that the Academy fellows had met the challenge admirably. Early-music technique includes minimal use of vibrato and short, light phrasing. Straight tones render a less complex ensemble sound, and short phrases with slight sustain create openness of texture and enhanced rhythmic vitality that are ideal for dance music.
And dance music there was. The first half of this concert consisted entirely of movements from the ballet score Don Juan (1761) by Christoph Willibald Gluck, a work that is played and recorded infrequently these days, but which served a pivotal historical role in the defining of ballet as an independent art form. Early opera combined voice and dance, but Don Juan proved the viability of drama performed with movement only, and thus the new genre took root. Don Juan was well known to Mozart, according to Labadie, and quoted in The Marriage of Figaro. And although the trombone at that time had been reserved for rites of the court and church, Gluck was bold to write prominent trombone lines into the climactic movement of Don Juan’s death and damnation, thus setting the instrument on a historical slide (so to speak) into the secular arts.
Saturday’s performance by this select group of Academy fellows proved Gluck’s rich imagination and gifts for orchestration. The 45-minute suite of nearly 30 movements did give the feeling, at times, of an iTunes album sampler — rifling through very short movements, only a minute or so in length, and leaving the listener to survey rather than settle in. But the range of the survey was vast, from the lyric serenade of oboe accompanied by spare pizzicato strings, to the vigorous Vivaldi-like swirl of thick textures in the final movements. Maestro Labadie was at one with the mind of this music, guiding the orchestra through sudden dramatic contrasts in tempo and volume, and unisons that shattered into division.
The second half of the concert began with Mozart’s short but brilliant “Overture to La clemenza di Tito” (1791). The master, at the peak of his powers, could cover a lot of territory in five minutes, and this performance enhanced the overture’s distinguishing features — woodwind dialogues, a passage in canon form, a dramatically thick development section, and the rocking timpani.
The program’s final work, nearly contemporary with the “Overture,” was the Symphony No. 101 in D Major, “The Clock” (1793-94), by Mozart’s good friend and colleague Joseph Haydn. The extended exposition of the symphony gave a satisfying grounding to the program. Academy fellows seemed especially in sync with Labadie’s shaping of phrases and swelling dynamics. The folk-inspired third movement was gilded by flutist Seungmin Oh’s fine solo. All stops were pulled out for the vivace, with its dizzying scales in the strings, its flirting with fugue, and its punctuated brass downbeats. The audience wasted no time rising to their feet in applause.