São Paulo Symphony Orchestra, Royal Festival Hall, London – review

As the World Cup and the Olympics draw near, Brazil is the place to be. The country’s orchestras have never previously made much impression on the international stage, but with Marin Alsop at its head, still basking in the spotlight as the first woman conductor at the Last Night of the Proms, the São Paulo Symphony Orchestra is coming to the party.

The ensemble’s first venture overseas with the American Alsop caused quite a splash. Now they have returned for a three-week tour of Europe, which has taken in prestigious venues in France, Germany and Austria, and culminated in concerts in the UK and Ireland – one of them this high-energy, vividly coloured concert as part of the Southbank Centre’s The Rest Is Noise festival.

The key to Alsop’s success in São Paulo is that she and the orchestra share a pan-American musical heritage. Camargo Guarnieri’s Symphony No.4, “Brasilia”, is a typical, high-octane Brazilian souvenir of the 1960s, drawing on Prokofiev and Shostakovich, Copland and Roy Harris, anything but the Germanic symphony, and Alsop made a clean-cut, energetic job of it. Then, for her part, she responded with New York aerobics in the Symphonic Dances from Bernstein’s West Side Story, home territory for Alsop, delivered in bold, primary colours and with just enough orchestral flair.

It was adventurous of them, though, to come with Berio’s Sinfonia. The Rest Is Noise festival, charting the music of the 20th century, is about to move on from the 1960s, but it could hardly leave without a nod to this archetypal slice of Sixties culture. Part wacky showpiece, part political agitprop, it rolls together what come across as nonsense texts (actually quotations from Lévi-Strauss and Beckett) and snippets of Ravel, Mahler, Richard Strauss and others, like a whirlwind cultural tour. It is at once exhilarating and rather tiresome. Few conductors would put across the enjoyment in it that Alsop does and the Swingle Singers, who seem to own the piece, were in their element.

After that, the audience deserved a reward. But what a corker of an encore Alsop found with Victory Stride by James P. Johnson, composer of the “Charleston”, a jazzy, uplifting, raucous winner – brilliant!


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