Brazilian Orchestra Makes Its Mark in Manchester

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Clarice Assad, Bernstein, Mahler: São Paulo Symphony Orchestra/Marin Alsop (conductor), Bridgewater Hall, Manchester, Sunday 27th October 2013 (MC)

Marin Alsop, photo Grant Leighton
Marin Alsop, photo Grant Leighton

Clarice Assad: Terra Brasilis – Fantasia on the Brazilian National Anthem
Bernstein: Symphonic Dances from West Side Story
Mahler: Symphony No.1 in D major ‘Titan’


One might excuse the São Paulo Symphony Orchestra for feeling jaded as this Manchester performance was the penultimate concert in a demanding fifteen date European tour. Yet the playing at this concert in the Bridgewater Hall International Concert Serieswas anything but lacklustre with the reliable baton of chief conductor Marin Alsop ensuring an enthusiastic performance steeped with vitality. Oh, before I forget the New York City born conductor, who in September 2013 became the first woman to conduct The Last Night of the BBC Proms, likes to be referred to as Maestro not Maestra so I will use that here.

Opening the programme was Terra Brasilis – Fantasia on the Brazilian National Anthem by Brazilian composer Clarice Assad, a work specially commissioned by the orchestra. Upbeat and programmatic Terra Brasilis is intended to portray a little of Brazil’s history in a six minute snapshot of the diversity of its people. I enjoyed hearing the robust score that certainly allowed the players to flex their muscles and warm up before the main works of the evening. Compositional influences were everywhere and I recognised the Brazilian National Anthem (from hearing it played at international soccer matches) and a number of other melodies.

Bernstein’s masterpiece West Side Story was written as a contemporary Broadway Musical of Shakespeare’s tragedy Romeo and Juliet involving gang rivalry between the Sharks and Jets in New York’s West Side. The bounty of timeless high quality melodies and compelling rhythms has assured the enduring success of Bernstein’s 1957 score. Bernstein himself supervised the arrangement of the Symphonic Dances from West Side Story a suite that he often conducted. It comes as no surprise that Maestro Alsop has taken the Symphonic Dances on tour as she is a former pupil of Bernstein – a fact she has no problem in advertising. For starters the Prologue was given plenty of oomph with a full sound that felt a touch bloated. Universally known, the tear-jerking song Somewhere was so beautifully introduced by the leader and principal cello then joined by the lovely solo horn. Its celebrated melody that goes with the words There’s a place for us… on massed strings was quite movingly performed and later the romantic Meeting Scene was as soft as feather down. The orchestra let rip in the brilliantly scored spiky syncopations of the gang confrontation dance scenes Mambo, ‘CoolFugue and Rumble all splendidly played for Maestro Alsop but rather lacking in chutzpah in a performance that didn’t swing and didn’t catch fire.

Today with virtually wall to wall Mahler it’s hard to imagine the time when Mahler’s music was a mere curiosity – not really taken seriously and programmed by just a handful of wayward conductors. It was as late as 1967 when Leonard Bernstein with the New York Philharmonic   became the first conductor to record the complete cycle of the symphonies fpr Columbia. Mahler gave his Symphony No.1 in D major Titan’ several revisions before arriving at the four movement version that has now deservedly become a perennial favourite with concert audiences. I couldn’t imagine too many people feeling short-changed by Marin Alsop’s reading that was high on vigour and integrity if without the inspiration that has been attained in this work in recent years at the Bridgewater Hall by the Philharmonia Orchestra/Maazel in 2011 and the Hallé/Elder earlier this year.

 Conducting without a score Maestro Alsop’s forceful interpretation of the opening movement didn’t reveal the unsettling undercurrent of tension evident in the finest performances. The highly impressive contribution from the excellent seven strong horn section was offset by the over-strident trumpets, trombones and tuba. With real determination Alsop built up the energy to provide a weighty and high volume climax. In the Scherzo I always find Mahler’s writing full of surprises with some succulent textures. Alsop’s pummelling Ländler felt expressively outlandish contrasted by an extremely well-mannered waltz. Commenced by the single double-bass the slow movement with its lumbering funeral march was handled competently by Maestro Alsop resulting in some fine playing from the São Paulo players. Alsop’s depiction of Mahler’s klezmer band didn’t have that distinctively tawdry and mocking manner that it requires. Throughout the colourfully rustic woodwind contributions were exceptional, supported by some tender string playing. Pounding percussion and snarling brass led the way in the Finale generating playing of considerable stridency. By contrast Mahler’s heartbreaking melody was played irresistibly on the high strings. It never fails to look impressive seeing the bank of horns stand for additional impact in the conclusion. With real potency the hardworking São Paulo players created an ear-piercing climax to this wonderful score that was guaranteed to please. The Bridgewater audience cheered, with a number standing up to show their appreciation to the São Paulo orchestra and were rewarded by two encores.

The concert was broadcast live on BBC Radio 3

Michael Cookson

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