Honoring Our Retirees - Peter LaBella
By Melissa Trier Kirk
I have been given the happy task to interview violinist Peter Labella, who leaves the orchestra after a remarkable 47 years. He will be sorely missed, not only because he is a wonderful violinist and an excellent colleague, but also because he is blessed with the gift of storytelling and an incredible memory.
Peter joined the orchestra in 1974 after auditioning for Maestro Bruno Bartoletti. He was 18 when he auditioned and 19 when he began performing at the opera.
“In those days, auditions for the orchestra were announced by word of mouth. I called in to see if there were any openings and they took my number. I was sleeping in on a Sunday when I got the call. Maestro Bartoletti will hear violins at 2PM.” Pete played the Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto and was asked if he knew anything from an opera. Bruno wasn’t interested in hearing The Méditation from Thaïs. Instead he put up the first page of Wagner’s Götterdämmerung (in six flats) and then asked to hear the opening of La Traviata. Maestro Bartoletti had him play it over and over, conducting on the stage and mumbling “Do me again this.” It wasn’t until Pete noticed a member of the audition committee in the hall making a shushing gesture that he played it the way the Maestro wanted it, triple piano. In the early years he juggled being a student at Northwestern with a hectic opera schedule.
Pete said he was playing 8-10 hours a day. “I never turned anything down” weddings, church jobs and in the 80’s and 90’s the recording sessions in Chicago were in full swing. He also performed as an extra with the Chicago Symphony for 20 years but reflected that he missed the singing, the operatic stories and the funny Italian conductors. At one point in 1985, a contractor asked him how much he’d want for donning a tux and playing violin on a Michigan Avenue. bridge for an hour and did he own a red running shoe. Pete was a stand-in for Tom Hanks who played a concert violinist in the comedy thriller, The Man with One Red Shoe. He was paid $1000 for that hour. Pete assured me that this wasn’t the strangest job he’d ever performed.
When I asked Pete about favorite musical memories he grew wistful.
“I can’t pick just one, but any time you’re playing with a singer, things get quiet, and the conductor isn’t overly controlling. You feel the tension between the stage and the audience and you’re listening and waiting. The singer is finishing the phrase and you know exactly where to play, where to drop in your notes at the exact right time. Could happen any Tuesday night for Traviata, Rigoletto, any opera. We take care of our singers. That’s our job.”
For Pete, that was playing the solo mandolin part in Mozart’s Don Giovanni with Sir John Pritchard conducting. “I’d played a little tremolo mandolin on the Webern Five Pieces for Orchestra for a Grant Park Orchestra concert. When you’re nervous, tremolo is easy. I rented a Jethro Burns mandolin and practiced but didn’t really understand how difficult the Mozart solo was. There’s nothing else going on, just you and the singer.”
Sir Andrew Davis hosts a dinner for the orchestra at the end of each season. The orchestra, in turn, provides entertainment in the form of skits they have created. A talented pianist, Pete was often called upon to provide accompaniments. He recalled one of his favorites from 2007, the year Sir Andrew conducted Poulenc’s Dialogues of the Carmelites. Violist Frank Babbitt came up with the idea to dress four male orchestra members in nun’s habits. Pete began playing the slow and steady introduction to the “Salve Regina” which provides the cathartic finale of the opera. As the “nuns” solemnly entered the room, they segued into "Goin' Out of My Head,” the 1964 hit by Little Anthony and The Imperials.
I asked Pete what he planned to do in his retirement. “I’ve been a musician for 60 years. I can practice now in a way that I can build things up.” Pete explained that after years of performing he’d suffered from overuse of his right shoulder and other physical issues related to playing the violin which is not an unusual situation. He plays five instruments, piano, violin, trumpet, mandolin and electric drum set, and wants to continue working on them all. Bravo Peter, you will be missed!