&ldquoAs Alsop faced the cellos and drew from them the most tremendously shaped phrases with every inflection of her baton, you were aware of being in the presence of greatness.&rdquo
6th March 2012

Marin Alsop opens a new Brazilian chapter

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 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?

James Jolly, Gramophone Online