Conductor, cancer survivor Bernard Labadie returns to Boston to do ‘what I love to do in my life’

Bernard Labadie conducted Handel's Messiah with Boston's Handel + Haydn Society. (Photo by Sam Brewer)
Bernard Labadie conducted Handel's Messiah with Boston's Handel + Haydn Society. (Photo by Sam Brewer)

“I like to say I knocked at St. Peter’s door, but his office was closed, so I was turned down and I had to come back,” Canadian conductor Bernard Labadie joked about the decisive episode in his battle against stage 4 lymphoma.

At this point five years ago, the Baroque and Classical specialist was suspended in a monthlong induced coma. This was just one part of what he calls the medical “nuclear option” that saved his life, which also encompassed aggressive chemotherapy, radiotherapy, and a stem cell transplant from his sister that caused his blood type to change from AB to A, he explained over the phone. “[The doctors] basically need to kill everything in your blood."


Now cancer-free, Labadie is firmly anchored in the present and leading the globe-hopping conductor’s life — with some alterations. “I can still [travel] but I have to be much more careful than I was before,” he said. He now conducts seated on a bench, sans baton. Jet lag was never a problem in the past; it is now.

Fortunately for him, he won’t have to change time zones from his Quebec City home base to work with Boston’s Handel and Haydn Society, which he’s conducted several times since 1999, most recently for last winter’s performances of “Messiah.” He leads the period instrument orchestra this weekend in a program including Mozart’s Symphony No. 41, “Jupiter,” and C.P.E. Bach’s Cello Concerto in A major featuring H+H principal cellist Guy Fishman.

Q. As a guest conductor, what do you find is a bigger challenge — leading a work that everybody knows inside and out, like “Messiah,” or leading something that maybe not as many people know?

A. Guest conducting is a specific process where you have very limited time to create something with colleagues, so the challenge is to convey your ideas in a short rehearsal time ... and convince people that it’s worth trying to jump on your train and make music with you, because apart from the occasional groan, [conductors] aren’t making music themselves. Musicians do it. So we need to convince them. It’s a work of conviction, of really convincing people to try to create something collectively.


Q. Tell me more about the ways you convince musicians you’re new to working with.

A. It starts with preparation. One has to be fully prepared, which is taken for granted at this level. In the case of Handel and Haydn, this time around I’ll be doing something slightly different from last time. As a guest conductor, when I do Baroque or Classical repertoire, I always send my music in advance so that people have my markings, which saves a lot of time in rehearsal. But with an orchestra that knows the language so well, sending too much information can be counterproductive, because they don’t necessarily need all the info that I would give modern musicians about it.

When I did “Messiah” last year, because of health reasons I hadn’t had time to prepare specific materials for H&H. I used my normal “Messiah” materials, which are heavily annotated and marked. And it worked, but I could tell that sometimes what was written was getting in the way of our own instincts. So this time around, I didn’t send anything in advance. I’m curious to see how things will happen when they bring the music from their own perspective and it meets mine.


Q. Do you remember the first piece of music you listened to after you woke up from your coma?

A. When I came back to consciousness, I came back to listening to some of the music I love the most. It must have been some Bach. It must have been Bach!

Q. How did you work your way back up to conducting?

A. I basically had to rebuild my muscles. I had to relearn how to sit, how to walk, everything, from the very beginning up to conducting and living a normal life. The rehab team that was working on me ... focused on what was needed for me to do my job. They took special care of the upper body. I could give you a list of little problems that I still have, but it’s nothing compared to the incredible privilege of being alive, and doing what I love to do in my life: that is, making music.

Q. Following that ordeal, did the way you approach music change at all?

A. Absolutely. Anyone who goes through a process like that will tell you that your whole life is changed after that. I’ve literally seen my mortality up close, a few inches away from my face, so that’s an encounter that changes you. It makes every moment count in your life.

The fact that you have to focus more on certain things, because you have less physical strength, sometimes forces you to revisit many things that you’ve done before. When I was recuperating, I watched videos of me conducting and I hated it. It was way too many movements, too much stuff that was not needed. Now I also conduct without a baton, because when I came back to work I was taking anti-rejection medication that made me shake a lot ... now, I can use it but I decided not to use it anymore.


The mind, and the spirit, and the soul come out transformed from that experience. I would say that the human experience, the human connection in music-making, becomes more important. It’s really about sharing something — first with other musicians and colleagues, and then the audience. It brings you back to the essential purpose of what you’re doing.

Q. Do you think that music gave you a reason to fight harder?

A. Definitely. There was a very long period of uncertainty before the actual procedure. And during that period, I was getting offers [for conducting engagements] and I had to decide what I would do two or three years later, not knowing if I would be alive, which is a very weird process.

When it became clear that I had probably beaten the beast, the idea of going back to music-making was something that kept me awake and alive, and really pushed me through the rehab process. And I actually came back to work extremely early given the magnitude of what I went through. I took a risk ... for me it was the only way to go ahead. I believe that when you come out of such an ordeal, there’s no perfect moment to resume working.


It’s going to be painful and difficult when you resume, no matter how long you have gone to rehab. I actually had to cancel a lot of stuff in the first years after my comeback. I had no idea how much I could take, and when I went back to work, I realized that I couldn’t do as much as I wanted. I could say that the process lasted for a good four years. Only this year, honestly, I can say that I’ve hit a ceiling in terms of recovery.


At Symphony Hall, Boston. Nov. 8 and 10. 617-266-3605, handelandhaydn.org

Zoë Madonna can be reached at zoe.madonna@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @knitandlisten. Madonna’s work is supported by the Rubin Institute for Music Criticism, San Francisco Conservatory of Music, and Ann and Gordon Getty Foundation.