Marin Alsop and the São Paulo Symphony Bring Brazilian Flair to London

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Guarnieri, Bernstein, Berio: Swingle Singers, São Paulo Symphony Orchestra, Marin Alsop (conductor), Royal Festival Hall, London, 25.10.2013 (GDn)

Camargo Guarnieri: Symphony No. 4 “Brasilia”
Bernstein: Symphonic Dances from West Side Story
Berio:  Sinfonia

This evening’s concert began with a protest, and very musical and well organised it was too. About five minutes before the start of the show, the audience members sitting in the right wing of the choir stalls all stood up and began singing. Eventually a banner was unfurled, making clear that the protest was against Shell, the sponsors of the event. The protesters sang well – they even included a verse in Portuguese (it might have been Spanish) for the benefit of our guests – and during the last verse they all filed out of the hall, creating a live fadeout effect as, one by one, they left. A twitter barrage after the event made clear that the singers were part of a campaign called ‘Shell out sounds’, campaigning against Shell’s sponsorship of the arts: “No sponsorship by oil companies in a time of climate change”. Does corporate sponsorship for a concert exacerbate climate change? I’d have thought flying a symphony orchestra from the other side of the world to perform would have a greater impact. However, there are plenty of peripheral issues involved, as the campaigners’ blog post on the event spells out.

Unfortunately for the partisans, the sheer quality of what followed soon consigned their protest to a dim and insignificant memory. The São Paulo Symphony was on top form, and presented a well-structured programme with all the jest and passion we’ve come to expect from touring South American ensembles, but also with musical standards that could match those of any of the world’s top orchestras. The programme covered three bases: Leonard Bernstein, whose leading advocate was conducting; Brazil, this is, after all, the country’s flagship orchestra; and the 1960s, the decade which The Rest is Noise festival is currently celebrating. More often than not such competing demands result in a programme that looks like it was designed by committee – and one that didn’t include any musicians. But the three works presented this evening, diverse as they were, did everything required of them, and each was given a spectacular reading.

Camargo Guarnieri’s Fourth Symphony is subtitled “Brasília”, after the country’s capital, inaugurated in 1960, just three years before the work’s composition. And it’s dedicated to Lenny: so there’s Brazil, the 1960s and Bernstein right there. The symphony is a big-boned lively piece, with plenty of syncopation in its well-proportioned themes. There is an endearing directness about the musical discourse: the orchestration, while skilful, is fairly two-dimensional, with the families rarely divided up and all the colours kept separate. There isn’t much counterpoint to speak of, apart from in a short fugato section in the finale. More often the lower strings or brass will play an accompaniment on the beat while the violins or woodwind play a more syncopated melody. As a symphony, it could be accused of lacking substance, but it’s short and doesn’t outstay its welcome, making it an ideal concert opener.

Bernstein’s Symphonic Dances from West Side Story brought out the best in everybody, not least Marin Alsop, who was in her element. But her São Paulo players were keen to emphasise the sheer quantity of Latin American music here, especially the Cha-cha and Mambo movements, which were performed with a passion too rarely heard on the London concert stage. The performance was characterised by heady passion combined with excellent control of tonal colour and balance. The Mambo in particular shone, not only for the blaring mariachi trumpets, but also for the fact that the whole orchestra was clearly audible beneath them, and not a single detail of the instrumentation was lost. In an all-round excellent concert, the Bernstein performance stood out – performance-wise – as the highlight of the evening.

Composition-wise, the crown goes to Berio, whose Sinfonia represents the 60s spirit distilled into symphonic form. As such, it was the ideal work to programme in the 1960s segment of The Rest is Noise festival. The fact that neither the work, nor even its composer, even get a mention in the book is one of its many unforgivable omissions, and not the only one for which the Southbank Centre has made amends in this year’s programming.

The Swingle Singers were in fine form, and all their vocal tricks were well projected by the amplification. Listening to the work on CD it is easy to overlook just how taxing this piece is for the vocalists, and while they all did well, none of them made it look easy. The orchestra was challenged too in places, and their pointillistic interjections it the “O King” movement weren’t quite up to the precision that defined the first half. But the tuttis were all excellent, especially in the complex third movement and in the oppressive finale. Alsop did well to hold the third movement together, but she didn’t manage to give the vocalists the same amount of space as Boulez and Peter Eötvös manage in their respective recordings. As a result, tenor Oliver Griffiths often had to speak his lines faster than he seemed comfortable with, and spit out the accents to make sure they synchronised. So the performance was a little lacking in poise at its most taxing moments, but otherwise it was a fine one.

The short running time of the programme suggested an encore was planned, and as it turned out, we were in for a real treat. The orchestra performed a lavish arrangement of James P. Johnson’s Victory Stride, complete with extended piano break, Dixieland clarinet solo and some great effects from the brass. But best of all, the Swingle Singers returned to the stage and scatted along in their own inimitable way. They were worked into the arrangement, so that there were question-and-answer effects between the violins (often standing) and the singers. The individual singers also took a few solos, most memorably one of the basses, who did an improvised “trombone” solo, complete with actions. A fitting end to a fine concert, one that is likely to prove a highlight of The Rest is Noise festival, and indeed the entire season.

Gavin Dixon