Prom 45: Brazilians’ Exciting Debut at the Proms


 Prom 45: Nelson Freire (piano), São Paulo Symphony Orchestra, Marin Alsop (conductor) Royal Albert Hall, London 15.8.2012 (RB)

  Symphony No 9 in E minor Op 95 ‘From the New World’
Copland:  Fanfare for the Common Man
Joan Tower: Fanfare for the Uncommon Woman No 1 (1986)
Villa-Lobos: Momoprécoce
Ginastera: Estancia – suite

Marin Alsop took over as principal conductor of the São Paulo Symphony Orchestra (SPSO) in March this year. This was the Proms debut for the orchestra who presented a feast of music composed on the American continent beginning with Dvořák’s great crowd pleaser, the ‘New World’ Symphony.

The first movement opened well with Alsop ensuring that the broad contours of the work were clearly delineated and the dynamics and textures well controlled. There was an excellent shared understanding of rhythm and tempi and the opening theme was played with freshness and spontaneity. The cor anglais played the main theme of the famous Largo elegantly but without being overly sentimental. There was some fluid and atmospheric playing in the middle section and a calm feeling of repose at the end. This account of the Largo did not entirely have the emotional warmth and radiance of the greatest performances but it was assured and accomplished. The scherzo was rhythmically tight and there was excellent interplay between the orchestral players while the lilting trio was allowed to unfold naturally and gracefully. The opening theme in the finale was played in a forthright and robust manner by the brass. I felt the orchestra were a little too much on the leash in this movement and I was not convinced by the overarching narrative. Overall, this was a good performance of a great work although there is scope for the SPSO to build on this.

There seemed to be a step change in performance for the second half which opened with Copland’s famous fanfare juxtaposed with the feminist response by Joan Towers (which, coincidentally, is dedicated to Alsop). The brass and percussion were on stage by themselves and the brass section stood at the back. They delivered a virtuoso and highly coloured rendition of both works preparing the way for the night’s further festivities.

Alsop and the SPSO were joined by the great Brazilian pianist, Nelson Freire, for Villa-Lobos’ Momoprécoce which is roughly translated as ‘Brazilian Children’s Carnival’. It is a suite for piano and orchestra consisting of 8 linked character pieces. Villa-Lobos wrote the work in 1929 for Magda Tagliaferro and the eight sections depict events in the preparation for and participation in the Carnival, and feature stock children’s characters such as Pierrot, Pierrette, the Little Ragman, the Little Masker and the Little Devil. Freire was completely at one with the orchestra and handled the rhythmic figurations of the concertante piano part with ease. A consummate master of colour, he depicted brilliantly the various child-like moods and experiences including riding on a pony, the mystery of new adventures, excitement and practical jokes. In the penultimate section, ‘The Little Jester’s Shepherd’s Pipe Freire conjured a silky tone from the piano which allowed Villa-Lobos’ beautiful melody to sing out to excellent effect. The work concluded with a Latin samba in which Freire and the SPSO evoked the joyous festivities of the Brazilian carnival. Freire has just recorded the piano solo version of this piece on his new disc for Decca and it may be worth getting hold of it if you want to get to know the piece.

The concert concluded with Ginastera’s Estancia suite which was famously introduced to the Proms by Gustavo Dudamel and the Simón Bolivar Orchestra in 2007. It started life as a ballet and depicts the gauchos and farmhands of the Argentine pampas. Ginastera uses Creole elements and the driving rhythms of the malambo throughout the work. Alsop and the SPSO captured brilliantly the sense of insistence and rawness in the first movement entitled ‘The Farm Labourers’. The delicate second movement entitled ‘Dance of the Wheat’ was highly evocative and atmospheric with some deft and delicate playing from the woodwind and brass. The SPSO cranked up the temperature for the third movement entitled ‘The Cattlemen of the Haciendawith its rapidly changing rhythms. The orchestra threw everything they had at the exuberant finale with all of the players clearly having a ball and Alsop dancing on the podium.

The Promenaders responded with a rousing cheer and some members of the audience hoisted the flag of Brazil. They were rewarded with the orchestra once again pulling out all the stops to deliver a riotous frevo as an encore, a Brazilian dance orchestrated by Edu Lobo. An auspicious start from Alsop and the SPSO – I hope we will be seeing much more of them in future.

Robert Beattie

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