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Ionarts-at-Large: OSESP & Alsop in Vienna

The Orquestra Sinfônica do Estado de São Paulo (OSESP) is the orchestral pride of the South American Continent—a splendid orchestra amid, granted, no worthwhile competition. That makes trips to Europe all the more interesting and important for finding their north (as it were) and to spreading the word. Built to their current stature and ability by the eventually controversial Kapellmeister John Neschling, they are now directed by Marin Alsop who thus turned her Baltimore summers into São Paulo winters. It’s been a few years since I heard them, in Sao Paulo and their fabulous hall under interim chief conductor Yan Pascal Tortelier, where they had shown some of their potential. Stopping by in Vienna at the Konzerthaus, on the eve of the hallowed institution’s 100th birthday, I should have expected a dramatic jump in quality. The only who jumped dramatically, it turns out, was Alsop herself—in her Leonard Bernstein memorial dance that is her conducting.

It opened with a little patriotic amuse-gueule, the five minute “Terra Brasilis – Fantasy on the Brazilian National Anthem” by Clarice Assad (Sérgio Assad’s daughter), a trifecta of utility: Local flavor (check!), a nod to supporting contemporary music (check!), and an orchestral warm-up before playing repertoire that matters (check!). Terra Brasilis is stuffed with Brazil-native instruments, displays a touch of school-boy humor with the tuba, and has enough musical references from Mozart to Gershwin to make it a veritable game of ‘guess-that-composer’.

Chopin’s Piano Concerto in f-minor isn’t the stuff to show an orchestra off (though the orchestral opening was nicely delicate and the oboes and bassoons impressed), but a task for the soloist to put on the shine. Nelson Freire is a good man to have on board (and a major garnish for the tour) for that—a pianists’ pianist of the first order, whose touch turned the slow movement into two gentle lovebirds nudging towards each other on their wire. The Finale, with very little tension, might have been plodding had it been less lovely. The encore, Scambati’s Mélodie de Gluck from Orphée et Eurydice, was enchanted with sweetness and fate.

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C.M.Guarnieri , Symphonies 1 & 4, Abertura Festiva,
J.Neschling / OSESP

In his Symphony No.4 “Brasilia”, Camargo Mozart Guarnieri hints at the grand and strict structures of the country’s concrete capital. The Orchestra has an exciting recording of the work under Neschling (BIS); in concert, the symphony—dedicated to Leonard Bernstein—fizzled strangely, except for the last of three movement which managed to gather momentum.

Much like graduates from Harvard have a way of inserting that fact into any conversation within the first three minutes (two, if they were summa), students of Leonard Bernstein have a way of reminding the audiences that might not yet know of their pedigree… by way of ostentatious programming, if necessary. That made the inclusion of Bernstein’s Symphonic Dances from West Side Story a very, doubly convenient bit of programming. Not only is it a neat piece for not-so-great orchestras to impress audiences with, especially if they have a claim to—or ability for—rhythmic swerve. It also hisses the Bernstein flag visible for all, in case the Guarnieri-dedication hint was too subtle. (Not that a bit of Bernstein remembering wasn’t fitting, the day after Bernstein’s passing 23 years ago.) Apart from the moments of collective cringing when the orchestra is forced to yell “Mambo” or coolly snap their fingers in the rhythm (because that’s the hot hipsters they are), it went reasonably well and the crowd in the well-attended Konzerthaus—animated by a high percentage of South American guests—lapped it up to enthused applause.

Still, with the OSESP displaying itself at less than full capacity, the Viennese memory—if there’s going to be any—is likely to have been: “Anything they can do, we can do better”, which is rather a shame of a wasted opportunity.