REVIEW: Prom 52 - Brazilian Popular Music - Montero/ OSESP/ São Paulo Jazz Symphony Orchestra/ Alsop

Marin Alsop conducting Prom 52
Photo credit: BBC/ Mark Allan

Prom 52- Brazilian Popular Music
São Paulo Symphony Orchestra (OSESP) / São Paulo Jazz Symphony Orchestra conducted by Marin Alsop with Gabriela Montero (BBC Proms. Royal Albert Hall. 24th August 2016. Review by John L. Walters)

Prom 52 was a revelation on many levels, and not just because of its eclectic repertoire, packed with tunes by some of Brazil’s most celebrated popular composers: Jobim, De Moraes, Cartola, Lobo, Buarque, Caymmi, Veloso and more.The São Paulo Symphony Orchestra (OSESP) had already put in a hard night’s graft under the baton of Marin Alsop for Prom 51 (LINK) earlier that evening. The black-clad players returned to the stage at 10.15, this time augmented by the red-shirted musicians of the 18-piece São Paulo Jazz Symphony Orchestra.

This big band – five reeds, five rhythm and eight brass – can play fiendishly difficult, contrapuntal orchestral jazz with precision and verve, nonchalantly throwing in improvised four-bar solos when asked. They were confronted with some challenging scores, such as the closing section of the opener, Moraes Moreira’s Estrepolia Elétrica, which in Luiz Arruda Paes’s arrangement morphed cunningly from borderline corn into glorious, virtuosic jazz samba overdrive.

An elaborate version of Pixinguinha’s football-themed 1 x 0 proved that Nailor Azevedo (aka Nailor Proveta) has mastered the art of mid-century Hollywood scoring in the tradition of arrangers such as Mancini, Mandel and Ogerman, a sophisticated sound typically originated by technologically enhanced session orchestras.

The difference here is that the two orchestras produced their idiosyncratic, Brazilian flavoured version of that sound in an acoustic space as difficult as the Albert Hall’s – in real time and without amplification or studio trickery. The subtlety of the orchestras’ dynamics were quite something – one minute blasting out a rapid samba, then creating the space to let a flute carry the tune over subtle accompaniment. You could appreciate each of the nine percussion players, without the sonic mush that can bedevil the best ensembles at higher tempos. There’s a singular joy in hearing such intricacies live in acoustic space, rather than mediated by the unavoidable equalisation of loudspeaker systems.

The repertoire for the short programme (an hour and a quarter including encores) was eclectic and a little breathless, since Alsop, the OSESP’s principal conductor and music director, seemed keen to celebrate as many different musical voices as possible. In a more leisurely programme, it would be fascinating to hear what they might do with music by Ed Motta, Ivan Lins, Tom Zé, Joyce and Vinicius Cantuária, just five more Brazilians from a list that would fill a dozen tweets. Alsop changed the pace by introducing a decorative solo improvisation – a solo fantasia on Jobim’s Insensatez, with a nod to its Chopin roots – by Venezuelan pianist Gabriela Montero. Her cool transition into vinegary chords heralded Jobim’s Garota de Ipanema [The Girl From Ipanema] in a witty, piano-led arrangement by Brazilian studio superstar Eumir Deodato.

The most ambitious music came near the close, with glorious scores by Milton Nascimento (Milagre Dos Peixes and other tunes), Hermeto Pascoal (Bebê) and Egberto Gismonti (Frevo). The tuneful and contrapuntal complexities of these three composers deserve a firmer place in the twentieth-century canon. And how exhilarating to hear these orchestral versions played with ‘classical’ commitment rather than the ‘light music’ detachment needed for the closing Aquarelo do Brasil, a cheesy 1930s hit (and the tune spectacularly repurposed in 1985 for Terry Gilliam’s dystopian cult movie Brazil).

The two bands were served magnificently by their arrangers: high strings poured sweetness over savoury jazz harmonies; timpani and French horns added gravitas to sentimental sax choirs. The integration of two ostensibly different approaches within the same space – without either ensemble losing what made it distinctive – was heartening. It was a bit like witnessing two branches of a political party who were determined to work together for the common good while acknowledging their underlying differences (and conflicting shirts). Under Alsop’s direction, genial, firm and expert, the dynamics were so wide and well controlled that every essential detail could be heard.

The delighted audience rewarded Alsop with rapturous applause and wouldn’t let her go without three encores, ending with a reprise of Estrepolia Elétrica.

Gabriela Montero, Marin Alsop and members of the São Paulo orchestras receiving applause
Photo credit: BBC/ Mark Allan

The entire concert can be heard on the BBC iPlayer - LINK

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