On Sunday afternoon, Bernard Labadie conducts Les Violons du Roy and La Chapelle de Québec in a performance of Bach's St. John Passion at Carnegie Hall. Regular visitors to the Hall, Les Violons du Roy employs a combination of modern instruments and period bows—a practice that Labadie recalls was initially "snubbed by the performance practice movement" but has become "the way of the future for many orchestras."
In a recent Carnegie Hall interview, Maestro Labadie expanded on the history and philosophy of his orchestra.
Les Violons du Roy is a modern chamber orchestra that uses modern instruments and period bows. I would say that the 18th- and early–19th-century repertoire is about 70 percent of what we do. When we do this music, our style of playing is heavily informed by the performance practice movement. Actually, if you do not notice the modern pitch and the steelier quality to the sound—we use modern strings—you might think that it's a Baroque orchestra. Many people, including many critics, write that we are a period-instrument group because the style of playing is extremely close to what you would do on period instruments. I believe that 75 percent of the so-called "Baroque" sound actually comes from the bow rather than from the instrument itself. For me, it's a very North American solution, which is totally valid. I don't present it as a better solution. We do a lot of touring in America. We can be performing in a great modern concert hall one night, and the following night we're in a high school auditorium, and the following night we're in a neo-Gothic church. We go from 50 to 25 to 75 percent humidity.
Under the best conditions, period instruments are the best exponents for that music, but "the best conditions" also implies smaller venues. That music was not meant to be performed on these instruments in halls like Carnegie Hall or Walt Disney Concert Hall or these kinds of places. For me, it makes total sense to do it with modern instruments. For me, it's the mind and soul of the musician that matters. I always say that in the word instrument, you have the Latin root manus, which is " hand." In the same way that the hand is the extension of the body, the musical instrument is the extension of the mind and soul of the musician. It's not a goal unto itself. It's a tool. I think it's perfectly possible to play that music perfectly and in good style with these instruments. I've heard performances on period instruments that were not in good style. I think the period instruments are definitely easier in terms of capturing the essence of this music, but it's perfectly possible to do it on modern instruments. And there are good sides to performing on modern instruments. You have more quality of tone, more projection in a big hall. There are advantages, as there are disadvantages. I work more and more with period instruments, and I like both.
What matters for me is who's performing and whether the musicians really understand this music. That's the only thing that matters. But using modern instruments has a certain impact on the number of people that you use. There's a transparency to the gut strings and Baroque woodwinds that allows the sound of the voices to cut through, while the modern strings have a stronger and fuller core to the sound, and you need a little more power to cut through it. But if you keep everything in balance, it's perfectly possible to do it. And we've been doing it since 1988.
The orchestra was founded in '84, and we switched to Baroque bows in '88. Strangely enough, initially it was seen as a compromise—a step towards eventually moving to period instruments—and we got stuck there because it became our personality. We found out very early on that it was working, that we had a sound of our own, because very few people do that combination. Very often people tell me, "I heard your orchestra on the radio and after 10 seconds I knew it was you." That combination of old and new is uncommon in the business. It's becoming more common, actually. For me, it's rather strange (if not ironic) to realize that in the early years of the ensemble, we were a bit snubbed by the performance-practice movement and by some milieus who thought you could not perform Baroque music properly on modern instruments. You had to be either pure or impure. There was nothing in between. That was 20 years ago. Now the world has changed enormously. What we were doing back then, which was seen as a bastard compromise by some people, is actually to some extent the way of the future for many orchestras and many groups. It's valuable to have an orchestra that can—even on the same concert, actually—perform a Bach concerto and the Tchaikovsky String Serenade and have two completely different sounds by switching bows, and of course also by changing mental gears.
Again, I'm not trying to be the advocate for this music being played on modern instruments versus period instruments or anything. I think both are possible. I enjoy doing both. What matters is what you have to offer here and here, and the rest is not important.
Related: March 25, Les Violons du Roy