If you had wandered through the lobby of a certain downtown Toronto hotel earlier this week, you would have seen Québécois conductor Bernard Labadie in conversation with journalists, looking pretty healthy, animated and eloquent as he talked about the Toronto Symphony Orchestra's coming Mozart @260 Festival, which he curated and will be conducting. He had a slight cough, but otherwise looked fine.
What you would not have been able to discern is that for the past 18 months, the 51-year-old Labadie's fight with a rare form of cancer repeatedly brought him to the edge of the abyss separating life and death. Many times, it seemed he would topple into it. "The odds were not good," he admits. "My doctor never put it in those terms – giving odds – but I knew my chances of surviving the disease were quite low."
Labadie was in Germany a year and a half ago when he developed a rash on his back, followed by severe fatigue. Neither seemed especially worrisome. Within two weeks, however, it was clear that something was seriously wrong. At first, doctors thought it might be mononucleosis. But after a month in German hospitals, and several in Quebec, it was clear that Labadie was in a fight for his life with a rare and aggressive strain of lymphoma, a cancer basically of the blood.
He survived, thanks to luck, superior medical treatment, and procedures that seem more out of science fiction than real life. After surviving an induced coma for more than a month, Labadie eventually was saved by a transplant into his system of his sister's stem cells, essentially regrowing his blood supply. "My blood is basically all new. I even changed blood type – I'm now A positive, because that's my sister's blood type. Used to be AB positive," he says. "And I have the immune system of a two-year-old entering day care. I had to get all my infant vaccines again. I have to build up my resistance all over again. And so I catch every virus going."
While Labadie was in hospital and in convalescence – he started conducting again only a month ago, after a year and a half out of commission – he realized that it was relationships and people that were the essence of what he wanted to live for. "The extra time is a gift. The disease changed my views on a lot of things, but especially my relationship with people. Because all the reflections I had when I came close to death were not about what I didn't do, what I hadn't accomplished, it was about this or that person, who I hadn't seen in a long time, things I hadn't said. There's a connection I expect to blossom."
And it's with colleagues old and new that Labadie has put together a very interesting series of concerts for the TSO's annual Mozart Festival. Old friends such as French pianist Alexandre Tharaud, with whom he's performing Mozart's early Jeunehomme Concerto on Saturday night, and new ones, such as Against the Grain Theatre's Joel Ivany, who is staging Mozart's Requiem under Labadie's musical direction. Saturday's program also includes the Jupiter Symphony and the overture and two arias from Don Giovanni. Intentionally or not, Labadie has assembled a program contrasting youth and age, darkness and light.
And when he talks about the music, he seems as young as his new immune system. On the Jeunehomme Concerto, written when Mozart was 21: "It's so radical. It's the beginning of a new era. Suddenly, it's the music not of a gifted child, but of a grown man. It's the point in his musical life where Mozart finds his own voice."
On the Jupiter Symphony (No. 41), Mozart's last: "It's the symphony I love the most and have conducted the most, of any composer. It's the apex of 18th-century orchestral writing, and leads to Beethoven. But it's also the paragon of joy. It encapsulates joy in Mozart's language. Everything is superb, on a small scale and large, from the way the opening six bars provide this enormous contrast of power and tenderness, to the contrapuntal complexities of the last movement, and everything in between."
And the Requiem, Mozart's last composition, unfinished at his death (Labadie conducts a completion compiled by American scholar Robert Levin): "It's the most perfect combination of the secular and the sacred, the operatic and the liturgical in all of Mozart's music. It reminds me of The Magic Flute [written at about the same time during Mozart's last year, and which Labadie will be conducting for the Canadian Opera Company next season] – where the secular and sacred perfectly coalesce. I love it so much."
We've been talking for half an hour, and there's another interviewer I can see waiting in the wings. I worry that I'm tiring Labadie out.
"Oh, no," he says, "I never get tired talking about music. I was still doing it when I was super-sick. I would have friends over and we would talk about music. It's been the blood of my life since I was a kid and it was one of the things that kept me alive. The ability to perform again was essential to bringing me back to full health, even though I'm not quite there yet. I said to myself, I must do another Jupiter, another Requiem."
And, over the next week and a half, the second life of Bernard Labadie will start with him doing just that.
The Toronto Symphony Orchestra's Mozart @260 Festival runs at Roy Thomson Hall from Jan. 16 to 23 (tso.ca).