How Marin Alsop plans to put São Paulo Orchestra on the map
I didn’t know what to expect when I visited the home of the São Paulo Symphony Orchestra, situated in an area of the Brazilian city known as Cracolândia – Crackland. It’s not a place to linger: prostitutes ply their trade on the platforms of a nearby station, drug addicts sleep in the park, and I witness a mugging while passing through in a taxi one evening. But I do make a point of having a wander round Crackland before a performance in Sala São Paulo, the orchestra’s beautiful, 1,500-seat concert hall. No one bothers me.
I imagined the orchestra as a Brazilian version of Venezuela’s Símon Bólivar Orchestra – an instrument of social change in a country with a high level of deprivation. And the orchestra does tick the usual social-consciousness boxes: it runs a music festival in the mountain town of Campos de Jordão a couple of hours to the north; it gives 100,000 youngsters a year the chance to hear classical music; it runs its own academy for young players; and it gives free concerts in the hall (and in parks) at the weekend.
But it is avowedly not the Símon Bólivar Orchestra. Nor is Brazil Venezuela, since it doesn’t share the latter’s commitment to state-orchestrated social change. No, the São Paulo Symphony has a more single-minded goal: it is aiming to be one of the great orchestras of the world, which is why so much is riding on its Proms debut tonight, under new chief conductor Marin Alsop. For the first time in its 58-year history, the orchestra will command a global stage.
“I get very emotional thinking about the Proms,” says its executive director Marcelo Lopes, a former trumpeter with the orchestra who still carries his mouthpiece around with him. “I would love to play there, but I’m out of practice.” He won’t rule it out, though – chief exec’s privilege. In the past four years, Lopes has overseen a revolution in the orchestra, chiefly by ousting John Neschling, the chief conductor. Neschling had raised the quality of the playing and got the new hall built, but, after 11 years in charge, was thought to have too much power. Bringing in Alsop, the US conductor who transformed the Baltimore Symphony, shows São Paulo’s global aspirations.
The removal of Neschling in 2008 was extremely unpleasant, but Lopes insists it had to be done. “We needed to release a little bit of pressure from the orchestra and let them grow,” he says. Yan Pascal Tortelier joined as interim chief conductor before Alsop took charge in March this year. She has already impressed locals by her willingness to learn Portuguese and embrace life in the vast, traffic-choked miasma that is São Paulo.
I meet Alsop an hour before she gives a concert at the Sala. She admits it was not love at first sight when she came to the city to guest-conduct two years ago. “It’s an overwhelming city, the third largest in the world, and when you arrive you say, ‘Oh my goodness, what have I done?’ It’s offputting at first – someone got a great deal on a lot of concrete.” But the orchestra quickly convinced her it was all worthwhile. “I was doing Mahler’s Seventh and I thought they sounded good, but what I was so impressed with – besides the gorgeous concert hall – was the exponential growth in the orchestra over just a couple of days. They were hungry for hard work and have enormous potential. There’s a let’s-give-it-a-try optimism that I find lacking in North America and Europe now.”
In an hour’s time, the orchestra will be playing most of the programme they are bringing to the Proms: Dvořák’s New World symphony; Villa-Lobos’s enigmatic Momoprécoce for piano and orchestra, with the feted Brazilian Nelson Freire as soloist; and Ginastera’s electrifying suite Estancia. Although Estancia is the concert opener in São Paulo, it is the foot-tapping closer in London. Repertoire is one of the areas where Alsop finds the old musical world more conservative than the new. “It gets very hard as an artist to always face the question, ‘Will that sell?’ There has to be a point where you say, ‘Does that make artistic sense?’ and not, ‘Will it sell?’”
The São Paulo audience may still be learning to appreciate classical music – it only gained a foothold in the city in the 1970s, when Brazilian-born Eleazar de Carvalho became the orchestra’s chief conductor – but they are curious. And Alsop and the orchestra’s artistic director, Brazilian-born Arthur Nestrovski, are committed to challenging them. The current season includes works as diverse as Schnittke’s viola concerto, Hindemith’s cello concerto, Takemitsu’s Requiem and Charles Ives’s The Unanswered Question.
On a Sunday morning, a bright and beautiful midwinter day that would pass for summer in the UK, I attend a free concert by the orchestra in Ibirapuera park, São Paulo’s answer to Central Park in New York. About 3,000 people have pitched up (they get four times that number during the summer) and listen with great intensity, ignoring the occasional passing helicopter; because of its traffic, São Paulo is reckoned to have the highest concentration of choppers in the world.
Before the concert, I talk to the orchestra’s leader, Emmanuele Baldini, a 40-year-old Italian who came to São Paulo eight years ago. “When I decided to come here,” he says, “colleagues in my former orchestra in Trieste said, ‘Are you crazy? It will be the end of your career.’ People said the same thing to Marin when she decided to come here. There is still a lot of ignorance about the orchestra. Brazil is famous for football, not classical music. That’s why we are proud to go to the Proms – to show off the level at which we can play.”
Baldini originally came as guest leader (to give him a way back if his Italian colleagues’ dire predictions were true), but he quickly saw the potential. He contrasts the diminishing job opportunities in Europe with the growth in Brazil, but does admit that, when he joined, the quality of playing was variable. It has greatly improved, he says now, adding loyally: “With Marin, we are in our golden age. I have never felt so optimistic.”
Nevertheless, he accepts that the job of moulding a world-class orchestra is only just beginning. “We need work to create a personality. In the beginning, it was an orchestra with musicians from different schools, different traditions, and until now we haven’t had someone to unify us. Now we are creating that personality. We always had a lot of energy, but it was a little anarchic. We had no one to organise all the good things, but Marin is now doing this.”
About two-thirds of the orchestra come from Brazil, though, because music education is relatively weak here, all spent time abroad to complete their studies. Horacio Schaefer, the principal viola, is typical. Born into a family that was originally from Germany (many of the musicians come from first or second-generation immigrant families), he learned to play in Brazil but went to Germany at 18, spending 15 years there studying, and playing with the Frankfurt Radio Symphony Orchestra before returning to Brazil.
With so many musicians trained in Europe and the US, does the notion of Brazilian-ness matter to the orchestra? “We are a Brazilian orchestra,” says Schaefer, “and we’re very proud of that.” However, he says, they are not seeking a Brazilian sound. “We know very well how to do Brazilian music and in those pieces we look for a Brazilian sound,” he says, “but not when we do standard orchestral repertoire. Then, we look for our own sound, and we measure ourselves against Chicago, Berlin and New York. That is the level we want to achieve.”
That’s quite some company they’re aiming to keep. It will be fascinating to see if they can pull it off tonight.