Photo by Jeremy Rhizor
I recently sat down with Brandon Labadie at my home and talked about his new role as Executive Director of Portland early music collective Musica Maestrale. We also talked about the fascinating challenges of trying earn one's way in the modern music world using a centuries-old model.
LW: I’m talking with Brandon Labadie, oboist and the new Executive Director of Musica Maestrale. How’s it going Brandon.
BL: I’m well thank you.
LW: So…new in town, eh?
BL: Yeah I just moved here from New York, finished my Masters Degree in historical music performance… I play baroque oboe…and moved to the Portland area to do music and also build instruments with my boss who just moved to Wilsonville. We make historical oboes, clarinets, shawms and bagpipes. I met him in NYC and I’ve been working with him for a few years. He moved out here and that was kind of my big push to come out here.
LW: I know that we were talking a little bit earlier about how interesting it is that the model that you seem to be following somewhat mirrors the way a baroque musician might have made his way [in the world] a few centuries past.
BL: Yes, it’s very true I’ve been doing a little bit of everything: composing, playing baroque oboe, modern oboe, and I’m going to be playing shawm with Hideki [Ed Note: Hideki Yamaya, Musica Maestrale’s Artistic Director ] in July…and I’m building instruments. I think now for musicians it’s one of the only ways to be a musician—you have to become this person that does all these different things and you just have to make your way in a lot of different facets of music before you can start to focus on one of them…the one that pays, I guess.
LW: [laughing] The one that pays…that’s always the rub.
LW: So what led you to be a specialist in making and playing early wind instruments? That’s not exactly a common occupation these days.
BL: Well I did my undergraduate degree at the University of Colorado, and when I applied there I had no idea that there was an early music ensemble, and throughout my freshman and sophomore years I kind of noticed that I really didn’t have the drive to become an orchestral musician. Because honestly, you have to sit there and practice orchestral excerpts; that’s your job during your undergraduate—to learn all the orchestral excerpts and be able to play them like a robot. And that was really unfulfilling to me as a musician. I even went through some phases where I was double-degree-ing in different things and trying to…like “Ok, music is really my passion, but I don’t think I’ll end up in an orchestra so maybe I should look for another way to pay the bills.”
And that’s kind of when I started getting into this early music thing, and was playing in an early music ensemble, playing baroque style. So the next step after I had been immersed in these ensembles was to get an historical instrument. I ended up going out to Seattle to get a baroque oboe—there’s a maker just north of there—and I started teaching myself, and then I started to look at schools on the east coast for early music schools. There are two big ones –The Juilliard School and the Longy School of Music in Boston, and so I went and met the teachers and had lessons, did the auditions and was accepted into both. Juilliard was great because they have a new scholarship program for the historical thing they’re doing, so that obviously seemed like the best choice—to go do it for free. Because honestly it’s also—this thing was so new—it’s ‘are we going to have jobs when we walk out? Are there going to be gigs?’ And…just the exposure, and working with so many great musicians. You learn so many instruments; at Juilliard you learn the recorder if you’re playing oboe, and then you pick up shawm and things like that. So it’s just kind of cascaded into this—you start to learn all the early wind instruments almost, and its—like you were saying before, that a baroque musician played a ton of instruments, so they kind of perpetuate that at the Juilliard school. And so I walked out with a lot of knowledge and I felt good that I had made that decision. I felt that I had a lot of freedom that way, so now I can just do music and not have to worry about the orchestral auditions any more.
LW: So in addition to crafting early wind instruments what are some of your other gigs around town?
BL: I guess I barely touched on that. I’d been building instruments in New York, and when my boss moved out to Portland that was also kind of a reason to move out here. Outside of that I’ve also been playing modern oboe and I have a small modern group. We’re called the Silver Pocket, which was actually the name of Bach’s parent’s house, and I thought that was my cool early music “steal.” So we’re called the Silver Pocket and we play music for modern oboe, lever harp and interactive electronics. I do a lot of composing, and we play various gigs that we form ourselves. We’re going to Canada to play with some friends I know up there in their little venue. Other than that I was just doing concerts, and was featured on the audio guide at the Portland Art Museum for their Venice exhibit. They’re putting on this big Venice early music/art exhibit. I’m on three of the pieces; I’m talking about them. So I kind of approached them about it initially; I asked ‘can we put on a concert for your exhibit’ and it turned into: ‘can you come talk about the music you’re about to play for us, and can you come talk about these paintings of street musicians,’ so this chain of events happened there. Then my boss who builds the instruments and myself are featured in their Object Stories exhibit, about building new baroque instruments. Also my compositions which feature some baroque idioms but in a modern sort of way—that’s being featured there. So I’ve just been expanding in all these different parts of Portland as much as possible. I’m always looking for new places.
LW: You also play with the Portland Baroque Orchestra?
BL: Yes; there’s not a core group of wind instrumentalists, so I’ve been contracted to play with them twice, and hopefully again in the future. We did the Messiah, during the snowstorm, and we did the classical concerti, which is a very fun experience. So we performed on classical instruments there, which is an entirely different oboe, and the pitch is different and everything changes. That means more reeds that I had to make.
LW: I’ve heard that making reeds is every reed-instrument player’s favorite task.
BL: Yes, I think I make reeds for four or five different types of oboes. I just have boxes. And when you’re not playing gigs you make reeds for when the gigs come around.
LW: Making reeds in your sleep?
BL: Exactly. Nightmares about making reeds.
LW: So you’re the new Executive Director for Musica Maestrale?
BL: I met Hideki Yamaya, who is the Artistic Director, in December, and we immediately became fast friends and got along really well. We had the same vision for early music,so it was kind of an obvious pairing for us to just work together and put on concerts and organize this whole thing. We have some really cool ideas in the works for next season. Nothing’s official yet, but we’re looking to do Bach’s Coffee Cantata, and we’re going to do it in one or two coffee shops in Portland. I also have this very cool---I don’t want to divulge too much information, but we’re going to premiere—definitely in this state—a set of American baroque pieces that I found. And there’s going to be a pre-concert lecture about colonial music. It’s from the year Bach died actually. So it’s what people in America were doing in the baroque when baroque music was transitioning to classical. Kind of when Bach ended his reign, if you will. We’re going to be doing some music from America. American baroque, which is always fun.
LW: Do you think the compositions that you’re looking at—and this is just my own hypothesis—are they a bit anachronistic according to what was going on in Europe? Let’s say they [Europeans] were transitioning towards the galante then. Was this American baroque a bit farther back in time compositionally or stylistically—or was it kind of on par with what was going on in Europe at the time?
BL: What I will say about this is that—if you look at around 1727 or so, you start looking at [Domenico] Scarlatti’s pieces—there are a lot of them that are already in the galante style, what we would call it, already moving away from the baroque. Bach beat the baroque idiom into the ground; he composed in a very encyclopedic format. “How many hymns can I write before it becomes too much, or fugues, etc. etc.” So I will say, with that in mind, I think that the music I’m looking at is very—how do I say this—it does have an older style to it. Because today I can go in the internet to Youtube and hear what’s going on in the world super fast...it’s just amazing. But back then—with America in turmoil and this trying to break away—it wasn’t even 1776 yet. So there is a lot of stuff going on, definitely older styles. What the Brits at the time were bringing over kind of became what American baroque was, and became what colonial music was at the time. So yeah it’s definitely older, a little folksier; there are major voice leading problems in the music, probably some terrible chords but we’re totally going to own it.
LW: These weren’t composers that were coming out of the leading…
BL: They were a club. This music is from colonial Annapolis, and they had a club that would meet once a week and they would write these compositions and play them, and they had lists of the instruments they had in the club and who played what, and it’s kind of open-ended as to which instruments should play the pieces. And that’s kind of cool, because whoever showed up played the music. So we’re looking to provide a concert that’s sort of in the same format. And I think it’s definitely something that hasn’t been done over here; we’re excited about that.
LW: Excellent; that sounds really fascinating. I’m looking forward to that now. I didn’t know that was in the offing; you learn something new every day.
BL: Portland Baroque Orchestra is great because it offers this huge orchestral experience of baroque instruments. [For MM] it’s: ‘What can we do that’s as good[as]…and entirely different [from PBO].’ And I think that’s what we’re becoming…the answer to [someone asking]: “When PBO isn’t playing, what are we doing?” It’s hard for them [PBO] to do chamber music because they have this huge orchestra, so why [shouldn’t they] do orchestral works?
LW: It seems to me like a lot of the essence of baroque music, for me anyway, is the small ensemble, it’s the two , five, six players, because, as anyone who knows about baroque music knows, for the most part [back in those days] they couldn’t field an orchestra as grandiose as the PBO…that might have been a large court orchestra—yet still they were making music everywhere else. And that’s why there are so many incredible pieces of music for these small ensembles. One of the wonders of baroque music to me has always been the wide variety of instruments. It’s almost bewildering…even people that study it for a long time…you know ‘I’ve never heard a chalumeau…what the heck is that? Or a trumpet marine, or…’ there were so many combinations. And part of that might have had to do with, as you said, whoever showed up had to play.
BL: Exactly. What’s interesting too is that a lot of new instruments or instrumentation was used because there were music unions, so there were people who told you what you could play and when. There were a lot of politics involved in music making back then. But yeah, I agree PBO is an amazing, awesome Portland institution that I’m glad we have. And we hope to contribute to early music as they’re doing, by playing works that are a little bit more obscure, and maybe draw…I mean there’s a huge draw to hear big Handel works…
LW: They’re great fun.
BL: Yeah they’re amazing. But we want to provide the same experience with obscure works that no one has ever heard of. Like this American Baroque thing, or playing tiny Italian composers’ music, these people who wrote a handful of works and…Hideki and I spend a lot of time digging up new things and looking for new works to perform. And I think that’s an important thing that Portland can bring to the early music scene as well, because a lot of big groups have a hard time doing that music, and I think that MM…that’s what were headed for. Those horizons.
LW: I guess I have another question specifically for an oboist looking at small ensembles. Can you tell us anything about the repertoire for something that MM might be able to realize with an oboist?
BL: Fortunately for the oboist, most of our repertoire comes from the baroque. There are over ten thousand pieces just from the baroque era alone that are explicitly written for oboe, so it’s really easy to find works with oboe featured. One thing I will say though is we really take to heart the idea of house music, or making music with whatever instruments are lying around. MM just played at the Portland Art Museum for the Venice exhibit, and I played violin lines for pieces[on my oboe] because we had an oboe, and one violin. It was [written] for two violins, but we just said ‘well it’s two treble instruments, so we’ll make it work.’ Exactly what they [early musicians] would’ve done. Because sometimes you don’t have the luxury of being so picky. So it’s kind of cool—it’s a historical touch.
LW: It’s interesting, as we were discussing about having come full circle—making your living much the same way that a baroque musician might have done. It’s fun to talk about that and I personally am pretty excited about MM and what’s coming down the turnpike. So thanks a lot for taking the time Brandon.
BL: Thank you. [EDITOR'S NOTE: Musica Maestrale is performing this Friday night, April 11 at Saints Peter and Paul Episcopal Church and Saturday evening at The Community Music Center. Tickets can be purchased at the door, or here online.]