São Paulo’s orchestra and its unique concert hall are set to attract even bigger audiences with Marin Alsop at the helm.
Ahead of their Proms performance on Wednesday, James Jolly witnesses the new partnership that’s already yielding exciting results
Sitting down with a former head of state to talk culture doesn’t happen every day. Yet somehow it seems entirely appropriate to be at a large table with the erstwhile president of Brazil, Fernando Henrique Cardoso. Not only did he lead the country during two terms from 1995 to 2002, but he is the man credited with mastering Brazil’s rampant economy and setting the country on the road to becoming one of the world’s great economic powerhouses.
It’s hard to imagine a Bill Clinton or a Tony Blair bestowing patronage on a symphony orchestra, but Cardoso, an urbane man of evident culture, heads the board of the Foundation of the São Paulo Symphony Orchestra (OSESP; or Orquestra Sinfônica do Estado de São Paulo to give it its full name), and dispenses his wisdom with quiet authority and a dry wit. The occasion that has granted a group of journalists from Europe an audience with Cardoso is the inauguration of a new reign at the OSESP – the first concert with Marin Alsop as chief conductor of this fine Brazilian orchestra.
Cardoso believes that high culture is a vital part of this huge country’s renascent status: ‘You could not imagine humanity only in terms of GDP, the growth of the economy. We have to express sentiments, and Brazil has a very rich culture. We have been capable of producing important cultural manifestations, in different aspects: in painting, in theatre, in music, in carnival. So this shows what sort of people we are – a people who love to be in contact with other cultures, but also a part of universal culture by being our own cultural resource. It’s as important to show this as to show that we have the capacity to be sophisticated.’
Brazil is indeed a cultural melting pot with a huge proportion of the population tracing its roots to Europe, Africa or Asia within a few generations. And few organisations illustrate this better than a symphony orchestra which pretty well every day draws its creative sustenance from very different cultures. The inaugural concert features not only the American conductor and a French pianist, but also music by a Brazilian, an Austrian and a Russian. São Paulo – many hours’ flying time from both North America and Europe – feels genuinely connected. And it’s a vast city: the biggest in the southern hemisphere and the Americas, and up among the handful of largest cities in the world (either No 3 or No 7, depending on who you listen to). And what’s really striking when you sit down and talk to paulistanos (as people from São Paulo are known) is their palpable ambition – not for the individual (as you would expect in North America, and increasingly in Europe), but for the city or the state. People have a genuine pride in what their country has achieved and what it intends to achieve.
São Paulo is a rich city built on coffee; and coffee plays an important (if now secondary) role at the city’s current cultural epicentre, the glorious Sala São Paulo. Formerly a railway station, it is now a concert hall that would bring a blush of shame to most of the great cultural capitals of the world – London very much included. The early decades of the 20th century are key to the story: coffee was grown on plantations surrounding São Paulo and brought by train into the city, where it was traded in the neoclassical exchange of the Júlio Prestes railway station. Today, a mosaic in the floor reminds a younger generation of the brown gold that powered the city. Marin Alsop – more likely to be clutching a can of Diet Coke than a high-octane espresso – is only too aware of the city’s heritage and what it has achieved, and what it will unlock in the future. She clearly responds to the orchestra’s hunger, and one senses that this very 21st-century maestro will give back to her supporters in São Paulo a comparable passion and commitment, as well as a pretty savvy grasp of PR.
Alsop is as much a fan of her new ensemble as they are of her. ‘They’re eager, they’re keen,’ she tells me. ‘They’re enthusiastic, they have a passion. I feel it’s interesting for me, especially, because they have this intense musicality. I try not to read into it clichés such as “they’re South American, so they must have this South American fervour”, but I really feel it! They’re very dedicated and they work hard and they enjoy what they do.’
That passion and enthusiasm will very soon be visible on a world stage, for Alsop and the OSESP are coming to the BBC Proms as part of a brief European tour. (It’s ironic that Alsop’s other ensemble, the Baltimore Symphony, that lithe and highly adaptable band among North America’s orchestras, had to pull out of a European visit due to a lack of funds.) At the Proms the São Paulo orchestra will be treating us to a feast that celebrates the Americas: Dvorák’s New World Symphony as well as works by Copland, Joan Tower, Ginastera and Villa-Lobos (his piano concerto Momoprécoce). It’s a skilfully programmed menu that caters for different tastes and which, perhaps more importantly, nicely shows off the orchestra’s strengths.
The latter couldn’t be more adeptly handled than in the choice of repertoire with which Alsop throws down the musical gauntlet to record collectors: a cycle of the Prokofiev symphonies for Naxos, recorded in the Sala São Paulo. ‘Prokofiev is a composer who offers the orchestra an enormous range,’ she says. ‘This is music that challenges them on every level, but also gives them the opportunity to show off: it’s got great solo and tutti writing. And stylistically it runs the gamut from gems of simplicity to a very complex, dense approach – angular music, very rhythmic music. So I think Prokofiev provides a perfect opportunity to showcase this orchestra on the world’s stages where they haven’t been before. We started with the Fifth Symphony, which I guess was something of a bold choice, but I think you’ll hear the immense passion that they have – and the sound of the concert hall, which is spectacular!’
The Sala São Paulo, whose inaugural concert was in 1999, is a magnificent creation, a totally convincing transformation by Brazilian (indeed paulistano) architect Nelson Dupré which contains at its heart a stunning hall, very much in the traditional shoebox shape, that feels both old and new. The former winter garden of the station, where the posh folk would wait for their train, conforms to the traditional proportions that have made halls such as Boston’s Symphony Hall, Amsterdam’s Concertgebouw and Vienna’s Musikverein the understated acoustic marvels that they are. A roof had to be fitted over the formerly open-air central space, and with some acoustic wizardry from the world-famous Artec company (who contributed so magically to halls in Birmingham, Dallas, Montreal and many more) the winter garden stepped up to become one of the finest halls of today. Its ceiling is entirely made of movable wooden units, which can be lowered through a staggering 18 metres to create a space suitable for chamber music; and when the ceiling is raised to its highest level (revealing some striking stained glass from the building’s former life) it creates a large space with a near-ideal acoustic. It works splendidly for the substantial forces and considerable volume called upon by Shostakovich’s Fifth Symphony – the core work in Alsop’s opening concert this March. The use of a beautiful, pale and very dense native wood called pão marfim makes the hall feel very light, the new wood juxtaposed powerfully with the solid, stucco work with its striking Corinthian columns.
The Sala São Paulo also serves as the administrative headquarters of the orchestra, as I discover when I meet the OSESP’s executive director, Marcelo Lopes, and artistic director, Arthur Nestrovski. Both are professional musicians (Lopes an OSESP trumpeter and Nestrovski a fine guitarist in a popular vein), and both talk with that typically Brazilian blend of pride and ambition that I have come to recognise from paulistanos. Nestrovksi, who has been with the orchestra for three years, outlines the OSESP Foundation’s head-spinning workload. ‘This year the orchestra alone will play 135 performances in Sala São Paulo plus outdoor concerts, touring and recordings. In addition we have the chamber orchestra series, the string quartet series, the chamber choir series and various chamber groups formed by musicians from the orchestra. We commission at least five works by Brazilian composers every year. And we have published more than a hundred works by Brazilian composers. We also have internet, television and radio broadcasts, and educational projects that will bring 100,000 children into the hall this year. So you need someone to try and bring it all together.’
The São Paulo Symphony Orchestra was founded in 1954 and soon established itself as the largest, and finest, symphony orchestra in South America. For record collectors, the name most closely associated with it is John Neschling, the man largely credited with raising the ensemble’s standards and putting it on the international map; his discs for BIS have been very well received. But a power struggle ensued, strong personalities faced off, and Neschling left at the end of what was clearly a bruising confrontation – it’s evidently still a touchy subject in and around the Sala. But Neschling built up a following for the orchestra, and as a result, explains Lopes, even the local appetite for orchestral music can occasionally cause concern. ‘Seventy per cent of our audience are subscribers, which is quite good. But that’s really the highest we can go because we must have some tickets for single buyers – to allow new people to experience the concerts. If we didn’t do this we’d sell every ticket before the season even started!’
Asked how he defines the orchestra, Nestrovski – who speaks immaculate English, as you might expect from someone with music degrees from the universities of York and Iowa – delivers an answer that has clearly been well rehearsed. ‘Being an orchestra in Brazil adds a whole raft of elements to just being an orchestra. São Paulo is a rich state but it’s always had this impetus of innovation, modernity, excellence – a cosmopolitan world view. It’s about not only being open to other cultures but also actively working towards integrating them into something else that we call Brazil. This is the very spirit of the Brazilian modernists who were based in São Paulo in the 1920s.’
For Alsop, who’s no stranger to challenging the traditional concert set-up, her new post has opened her ears to a genre of music that – considering her well-known flare for rhythm and colour – should be a perfect fit. ‘I’m very happy to have the excuse to explore South American music with them, as the Villa-Lobos piece we’re playing at the Proms shows. This is repertoire I previously had no exposure to, but I’m now exploring the works of [Carmago] Guarnieri and composers you simply don’t run across in North America and Europe: [Manuel Alejandre] Prada, for instance – a wonderful composer. And the orchestra’s commitment to commissioning new works by Brazilian composers is an incredible opportunity to meet and nurture young Brazilian talent.’
For her inaugural concert, before a packed Sala, Marin Alsop unveils a new work by the young Brazilian Clarice Assad (a member of the famous musical Assad family) which riffs on the Brazilian National Anthem. The audience love it, and for those of us with a less-than-instant grasp of the piece’s ‘theme’, it provides a great chance to witness a marriage between conductor and orchestra that’s setting hearts beating just a little faster.
This month, the OSESP and Marin Alsop will be giving concerts at the BBC Proms (August 15), the Snape Proms (August 16), the Rheingau Musik Festival (August 18) and the Concertgebouw, Amsterdam (August 19)