Marin Alsop opens a new Brazilian chapter

James JollyTue 6th March 2012
Marin Alsop in the Sala São Paulo, home of the SPSO (Photo: Alessandra FratusMarin Alsop in the Sala São Paulo, home of the SPSO (Photo: Alessandra Fratus

An inaugural concert in São Paulo that bodes well for the future

São Paulo is a huge city: some sources claim it as the world’s third largest and it’s one with colossal ambition. As you fly in, it seems to stretch as far as you can see in every direction. And now it has opened a new era in the history of the São Paulo Symphony Orchestra with a new music director, Marin Alsop. No stranger to us in the UK from her work with the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra, the LSO and the LPO (among others), Alsop is a shrewd choice to raise this 58-year-old (and already respected) ensemble’s international reputation: she’s a canny programmer with a broad repertoire and a seemingly insatiable appetite for new music, she’s a great communicator (even introducing her Polovtsian Dance encore in what I gather was creditable Portuguese), she’s open to the opportunities of new media, and she has limitless amounts of energy. It’s a good fit and there was a palpable buzz about her opening concert.

The SPSO’s home is one of the most stunning concert-halls in the world, a former coffee exchange that formed part of a major railway station, the Estaçao Sorrocabana Ferrovial Júlio Prestes. It seems appropriate that a building through which passed the product that helped build São Paulo’s wealth should now be the magnet for one of the city’s cultural riches (the mosaic floor in the hall’s lobby uses a design based on the flower of the coffee plant, amazingly intact after years of disrepair). The auditorium itself was the building’s winter garden and when the exchange fell into disuse in the late 1930s, the hall entered a long period of sleep before being awakened, Sleeping Beauty-like, by the world-famous acousticians, Artec Consultants. (They had an added challenge in that the station still operates and railway lines come to within 100 feet of the auditorium, so everything has to float on an vibration-resistant platform.) 

The hall, given the roof it never had before, is a perfect shoe-box shape (like Boston’s Symphony Hall, Vienna’s Musikverein and Amsterdam’s Concertgebouw), and it seats 1600. The walls are stone and the whole space is kitted out in a very attractive, and very dense, pale wood (from an indigenous tree called pão marfim). Below the new ceiling, wooden panels can be raised and lowered by at least 11 metres to ensure an ideal acoustic: and it sounds very fine when filled with a large orchestra. The whole transformation has been done with sensitivity, the requirements of a modern concert-hall – walk ways, boxes, balconies and so on – all accommodated within the existing design, complete with its huge Corinthian pillars. The entire building exudes confidence.

The inaugural programme was shrewdly judged to show off orchestra, hall and conductor to best effect – and a classy pianist was thrown into the mix. The curtain-raiser was a new work by Clarice Assad, the 34-year-old eldest daughter of Sergio Assad and one of Brazil’s brightest young composers. Her Terra Brasilis, a five-minute curtain raiser, is based on the Brazilian national anthem, and keeping it always near the surface, treats it to a variety of effects from the mysterious, to the neo-classical, to a toe-tapping syncopated section, to a harmonisation of delicious warmth – the audience clearly loved it and responded openly to Assad’s affectionate riff on a well-known melody that’s pretty lively to start with. 

Then came one of my favourite Mozart piano concertos, the E flat major, K482, with its cheeky finale (complete with that heart-stopping moment just before the end when everything stops for a moment’s musing before dancing off to the final cadence). The pianist was David Fray (married to Riccardo Muti’s daughter Chiara, if such things interest you). He’s an imaginative player; seated on a chair and hunched over the keyboard à la Glenn Gould, he makes every bar a thing of interest. He even used what I’m pretty sure were the cadenzas by Edwin Fischer: the one in the first movement is particularly whacky. Alsop chose a largish body of strings (ten firsts down to five double-basses) and the generous acoustic tended to obscure the middle of the orchestra, particularly the winds, but she was a sensitive accompanist. I suspect with a smaller body of strings internal balance might be easier to manage, especially as the stage is pretty deep. An acoustic for a big romantic symphony might not be best for a classical concerto; ‘tuning’ the hall is still under way.

To close, we had an Alsop speciality, Shostakovich’s Fifth Symphony, a work that perfectly demonstrated the chemistry between conductor and players – and the space in which it was being played. Every instrument shone through with clarity, and the percussion – particularly the orchestral piano and celeste – emerged crystal clear. It was a nicely judged reading that balanced power with poise and in the slow movement achieved an ideal sense of stasis. The finale, taken quite steadily, had an implacable tread and the work closed in a blaze of light. No wonder the audience leapt to its feet as the final chord died away. It’s a work – with its ambiguity and sardonic humour – that, as with the symphonies of Mahler, particularly appeals to us today, a work that seems to wear its heart on its sleeve. Or does it?

The repeat concert this Saturday is being webcast so you can see the hall for yourself, and savour a programme that I suspect will have developed further on its third outing. It takes place at 1.30pm EST, 4.30pm Brazil time, 7.30pm GMT and 8.30pm CET. Click here to watch.

The São Paulo SO, by the way, are making a brief European tour this summer which takes in London, Aldeburgh, Wiesbaden and Amsterdam – full details to be released soon. And starting this autumn is a series of the Prokofiev symphonies under Marin Alsop for Naxos (launching with No 5). The orchestra are also starting a cycle of the 12 Villa-Lobos symphonies under the veteran Isaac Karabtchevsky.

James Jolly

James Jolly is Gramophone's Editor-in-Chief. After four years of co-presenting BBC Radio 3's weekday morning programme "Classical Collection" has moved to Sunday mornings, with Rob Cowan his fellow presenter. His blogs will explore live and recorded music, as well as downloading and digital delivery.

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