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A world-class orchestra in the heart of São Paulo’s Crackland

Damian Thompson visits Brazil to hear Marin Alsop whip São Paulo’s orchestra into shape

7 September 2013

9:00 AM

7 September 2013

9:00 AM

São Paulo has a concert hall that London’s orchestras would kill for. It was originally a railway station, a mighty space bounded by Corinthian pilasters in the style of a French palace, built by Brazilian coffee barons. Now the tracks are buried beneath 800 seats on the main floor, plus another 700 on the balconies and mid-air boxes facing the stage.

But it’s the ceiling that produces gasps, or, in the case of a children’s concert I attended, earsplitting squeals of wonder. You’d think Superman had arrived. You see, the ceiling is made up of 15 huge, lavishly decorated panels that match the walnut floor. And they move! Up and down, independently, like monster elevators. Which, given that they weigh 7.5 tons each, is disconcerting. And surprising if you’re not expecting it.

The result is an adjustable acoustic that ranges from the cathedral (for, say, Mahler’s ‘Resurrection’ Symphony) to a more intimate space for a chamber orchestra. Mostly it’s pitched somewhere in between, and it beats the Festival Hall, the Barbican and of course the Albert Hall hands down.

And all in one of the scariest locations in South America. When I arrived at the Sala São Paulo, I asked if I could have a stroll outside. ‘Only if you go with a security guard,’ I was told. The concert hall is in Cracolândia — Crackland. Addicts known as ‘zombies’ shuffle around with blankets hanging from their shoulders, like a priest’s cope. They sleep on the steps of the hall and dealers hover. There are 320 armed robberies in São Paulo every day; not even the luxury shopping malls are safe, but the Sala’s location puts off some visitors.

Does the Sala São Paulo have an orchestra to rival London’s finest? No. In ten years’ time? Very possibly. But by then the orchestral map of the world will have been torn up anyway.

The São Paulo symphony orchestra is usually referred to by the initials Osesp, standing for Orquestra Sinfônica do Estado de São Paulo. The state of São Paulo owns it. Don’t, whatever you do, make the mistake of assuming that this is a Brazilian national project. Paulistas — 28 million of them in the metropolitan area — hate taking second place to the louche city 250 miles up the coast. ‘São Paulo works so that Rio can play,’ is the local saying.

Osesp is the best symphony orchestra in Brazil. It’s world-class, but not yet in the first rank. Getting it there is the job of its American chief conductor Marin Alsop, who took up the part-time post last year. She was chosen by the orchestra’s artistic director, Arthur Nestrovski, a Brazilian composer, guitarist and former professor of literature. He runs Osesp with its executive director Marcelo Lopes, a one-time trumpeter with the orchestra.


This is a seriously audacious enterprise. Everything in the Sala São Paulo gleams and moves like clockwork. The 120,000 children who attend its concerts every year file out of the metro station — a bit of the railway complex that hasn’t been converted, separated from the Sala by a vast glass façade — and are summoned into the hall by the sound of trumpets.

The previous conductor, the Brazilian John Neschling, made some fine recordings but was given to tantrums that made soloists reluctant to visit. His sacking provoked a titanic row (lovingly chronicled, as these things are, by Norman Lebrecht on his blog). Nestrovski knew that, this time, he needed a conductor with an international reputation, which meant looking abroad. Also, as he told me, ‘it had to be someone who wouldn’t just arrive and jet out again — someone who understands that we have a vital educational role to play. São Paulo is the artistic and cultural centre of Brazil, but also in some respects it’s a mess.’ And, he added, ‘this is a difficult area at night’.

Marin Alsop, principal conductor of the São Paulo State Symphonic Orchestra (Photo: Nelson Antoine)

Marin Alsop, principal conductor of the São Paulo State Symphonic Orchestra (Photo: Nelson Antoine)

Marin Alsop fitted the bill. Paulistas are liberal — unless you count the psychotic gangs who run the drugs trade, who thankfully have shown no interest in Osesp — so there were no worries about appointing a female. Moreover, the city hosts a million-strong gay pride march, so the fact that Alsop is happily partnered with another woman was a plus, if anything.

But Alsop had more significant selling points. First, she remains music director of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra. Baltimore is one 20th the size of São Paulo, but The Wire didn’t exaggerate the squalor of its West Side. Alsop set up the OrchKids programme, loosely based on Venezuela’s El Sistema. This took her and her musicians into the most deprived schools, where they helped found orchestras, choirs and ‘bucket bands’ (literally, you just bang a four-dollar bucket). The rewards have been astonishing. Before taking part, ten per cent of the children wanted to go to college; afterwards, 65 per cent did.

Osesp already devotes huge efforts to reaching young people, hence the attraction of Marin Alsop. But the orchestra also wanted her particular musical brand, which is influenced by her close friendship with Leonard Bernstein. She has an almost freakish mastery of rhythm, the jazzier and more complex the better. ‘She flicks through a new score and imbibes it faster than anyone else in the business,’
said Nestrovski.

Alsop’s hyper-accurate mental metronome is crucial, because the São Paulo orchestra needs tidying up. ‘The violin sound is intense, they dig in, and the brass is fearless,’ says one music critic. ‘But it does mean that mistakes, when they happen, tend to be quite noisy ones.’ Alsop took Osesp to the Proms last year: the reviews were great, but the new conductor has plenty of rough edges to smooth without losing the gutsiness that’s bred out of many Western orchestras.

I talked to Marin Alsop in her dressing-room before a concert. At 56, she’s still delicately pretty and chic. Like Nestrovski she’s obviously a driven person and, I assume, as staunchly liberal as everyone else in American artistic circles. She seems an unusual choice to conduct the Last Night of the Proms this year. I couldn’t resist telling her how much I hate that particular jamboree. ‘Yes, that’s what my British friends tell me,’ she said. ‘I guess it’s like Fourth of July concerts — a love-hate thing.’

She’s very glad that she took the Brazilian post. ‘Despite all the problems, this is a more embracing society than any I’ve experienced. It’s so mixed that there isn’t this constant labelling and dividing of people.’

But can it produce a great symphony orchestra? ‘Oh, sure. But what do you mean by “great”? Longevity and tradition make the Berlin and Vienna Philharmonics sound the way they do, but there are other ways to define greatness. Maybe in the future, passion and commitment will influence greatness. There’s a hunger in this orchestra, a growth in responsiveness over rehearsals that’s astronomical.’

That night’s concert included Der Gerettete Alberich, a percussion concerto by the American composer Christopher Rouse that riffs cheekily on the leitmotifs from the Ring Cycle. The soloist was Colin Currie, surely the world’s finest and most daring percussionist. Alsop has been one of his mentors since he was a teenager. ‘The piece requires him to produce these highly sophisticated metric modulations,’ she said, ‘but then it switches into rock and roll and it’s just so damn funny. Everyone can relate to it.’

Sure enough, Rouse’s piece received a standing ovation that evening — an unusual response from an audience nourished on a safe repertoire of the European classics. But then so did Mahler’s First Symphony. By the end, Alsop was jabbing and jiving as if possessed, though still firmly in control. It’s a tricky work to bring home, a bit like landing a plane in high winds. The last bar was explosive and accurate — just right, and evidence that the combination of Marin Alsop and Osesp is working. What we’d heard was an exuberantly hearty orchestra whose new conductor is teaching it to negotiate hairpin bends.

As I say, this is work in progress. You can judge for yourself when she brings her Brazilian band to the Festival Hall on 25 October. It’s just a pity that the ‘zombies’ outside the thoroughly soundproofed Sala São Paulo never get to hear the noise that brings audiences to their feet. But perhaps Alsop can do something about that.


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