Marin Alsop

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The conductor on bringing the São Paolo Symphony Orchestra to its first ever BBC Prom

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Tonight, the São Paolo Symphony will become the first Brazilian orchestra ever to appear at the Proms. How important is that to you?

To the orchestra it’s a wonderful benchmark for them. They have this great opportunity to show that they really are an international orchestra, that they can play European repertoire, South American music and so on… It’s a great showcase for them and I’m very excited.

Dvorak’s New World Symphony, followed by Copland, Joan Tower, Villa-Lobos and Ginastera. How did you choose the repertoire?
It’s always a bit of a negotiation [with Proms controller, Roger Wright]. The focal point is this idea of a shared experience – you’ve had the Olympics and now we in Brazil are going to have the Olympics. Roger also wanted some kind of celebration of the Americas, so we move from Europe to North America, then we have another focal point on South America.

You’ve been with the orchestra in a full time capacity since the Spring. Have you been enjoying it?
It’s fantastic, I love it. The orchestra is terrific and I think everybody will be pretty impressed. It’s wonderful to work in an atmosphere where there are resources and optimism and there’s a sense of can-do. It’s also a good time to be here. The spotlight is on Brazil right now because of its economic boom, and people are curious about all things Brazilian. That creates an interest level internationally that the orchestra wants to capitalize on. It’s being helped a lot by its recordings – its first Prokofiev disc is out, along with a new Villa-Lobos recording – which give people a sense that they’re a good orchestra.

In terms of playing, how would you like to develop the orchestra?
Working towards variety and quality of sound, extraordinary dynamic range, rhythmic integrity – but I find those are the things I like to focus on wherever I am, and are not particularly specific to this one orchestra. I think they are already very good, and there are no huge gaping holes that I need to address. I think the small difference here is that all the musicians are extraordinarily eager and hungry to be great. That’s such a fertile environment to work in because what we work on seems to really stick with them from one concert to the next, and the improvement to me feels quite dramatic to me.

Your contract in São Paolo is initially for five years. What do you hope to achieve in that time?
I never set exact deadlines, but everyday we try to push ourselves a little bit further. For me, the most important element is to raise the artistic bar as high as possible so that there’s consistency regardless of who’s on the podium or who’s the soloist. Their aspiration is to be considered among the top orchestras of the world, while my goal is always to create a sense of excitement about the repertoire, about what we’re doing, and to engage the community in what we’re doing. We’re very involved right now in a winter festival, for instance – it’s all about pedagogy and training the next generations. A big part of my life’s mission is trying to spread the word of classical music, and the orchestra’s very committed to that.

And are you enjoying the time you spend in Brazil?
I am. São Paolo’s a challenging city – it’s huge, a concrete jungle – but the people here are wonderful. And whereas what we’ve experienced in the US and UK has been quite depressing – because of the economic struggles, the arts have experienced a tough hit – here it feels completely different. In South America, there’s excitement about classical music among young people, partly due to Venezuela’s El Sistema programme. In Brazil they have similar programmes, and young people from every economic level are flocking to classical music.

Marin Alsop conducts the São Paolo Symphony Orchestra in tonight’s BBC Prom, 7.30pm