"It's a very tempting definition of death. It's the one I would wish for my best friend," conductor Bernard Labadie says with a laugh.
Labadie is referring to the ethereal Requiem by Gabriel Fauré, one of several works he'll be conducting this weekend with the Minnesota Orchestra. (The Minnesota Chorale will appear in Fauré's Requiem and Fauré's Pavane in the second half of the program.) Friday's night concert will be broadcast live at 8 p.m. from Orchestra Hall with Brian Newhouse as host.
Minnesota is lucky to have Labadie, and Labadie is lucky to be here. Four years ago, he was diagnosed with stage IV lymphoma and hemophagocytosis. His taxing treatment included chemotherapy, radiation therapy and even a stem cell transplant. (Fortunately, his sister was a perfect donor match.) For a month, he was in an induced coma.
He has been unapologetically candid about the experience, his openness touching colleagues and patrons alike.
"I received a message from one of our subscribers in Québec City with my orchestra, and he was just going through the exact same illness with the exact same procedure, so he told me that it was a great help to him. So that's the reason why I did it. Normally, I'm rather private about these things. But I thought that, in this case, it might be helpful to some."
The question is obvious: Did his brush with death alter his approach to a piece like Fauré's Requiem?
"No," he says, decisively. "I don't think it's possible to disconnect yourself completely from the topic of such a piece. It has not changed my way of doing it. It has helped me to actually fortify it and make it run deeper."
The Fauré holds a unique place in the history of requiems. Labadie explains why: "[It's] not about judgment and it's not about the fear of death. It's about peace: peace of mind and peace of the body."
As Labadie points out, this peace manifests itself due to deliberate creative choices. Fauré declined to compose any dramatic scene of judgment as Mozart and Verdi had in their requiems, choosing instead to emphasize the intimate human perspective of the experience of death.
"There's absolutely nothing operatic," Labadie says. "There is a mention of last judgment and fear of death, but it's in the Libera Me … That part is seen from a very personal viewpoint, a viewpoint of the person who is suffering and asking for relief."
Labadie is especially struck by the final movement: "I could not think of a better way of leaving this world than with the music in the In Paradisium at the end, at the last movement, which is just the most … ." He pauses, looking for the right words. "The music just vanishes. It dissolves in fumes heading skyward."
How exactly did Fauré translate this intimate human perspective into music?
"The important thing to know about the Fauré Requiem is that it was originally a work of small proportions," Labadie notes, pointing out that its instrumentation was initially very different, and on a much smaller scale to what we know today. It was only when demand grew for a large symphony orchestra arrangement that one was actually written. Labadie lists various instruments that don't play for long stretches of time: the violins, the woodwinds, the brass. "They were literally added later on in order to expand the orchestration. … You have to keep in mind the fact that it is almost a chamber music piece initially in its vision."
Accordingly, listeners will notice the cellos, violas and basses taking on a prominent role.
Even from our brief conversation, it was clear that this piece holds a special place in Labadie's heart. (He actually performed it at his father's funeral in 1992, and as we spoke he was paging through the score, still fascinated by minute details.) Since the piece means so much to him, I asked him if there's one thing that he hopes patrons take away from this weekend's performances. His answer was unexpected and deeply heartfelt.
"My dream which is probably impossible to achieve and which will probably never happen would be for people to leave without applauding," he says. "Because, for me, to applaud after that ending is counterintuitive and goes totally against the grain. You want to applaud at the end of the Verdi Requiem. You want to applaud at the end of the Mozart Requiem. But not this one."