Festival Music

Sao Paolo Symphony Orchestra

Usher Hall, Edinburgh

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Kate Molleson

four stars

SOME orchestras tend to run themselves, self-directed from within while the conductor adds interpretative detail or navigates tricky corners, or possibly doesn’t do much at all. Not so with the Sao Paolo Symphony under Marin Alsop. Brazil’s flagship orchestra made its Edinburgh debut and lived up to its reputation for bright energy and big punch, but I’ve rarely seen a conductor work so hard to get it.

Alsop was utterly cool on the podium: decisive, clear, brisk with tempos, totally in control. She takes a no-bullshit approach, never baggy or indulgent and always aware of who-needs-what-when. Her complete alertness seemed to compel the musicians to respond with the same – audience, too, because despite not-always-remarkable constituent parts of the orchestra, this was a remarkable concert.

Shostakovich’s Fifth Symphony was taught, direct and vibrant, superbly paced to ramp up tension and hit climaxes blazing. Alsop opened with Chichester Psalms by her mentor Leonard Bernstein – a piece he once described as “old-fashioned and sweet” though she made it sound straight-up and un-mawkish. The Edinburgh Festival Chorus was on fine form, robust and glowing in quiet passages, and Taylor Torkington sang a beautifully simple treble solo: absolute composure, unwavering tone, bang-in tune.

The night had to include music by Brazil’s greatest composer and Villa Lobos’s Choros No 10 was the concert’s highlight for me, an edgy, exhilarating blend of Amazonian folk rhythms and urban Stravinskian modernism that was given real thrust by the orchestra. The valiantly choreographed hip-swaying in the chorus was possibly less convincing, but all credit to them for giving it a shot behind a stage full of Brazilians.