Prom 45: São Paulo Symphony Orchestra

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The Proms debut of the Brazilian ensemble

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With the strains of Villa-Lobos and the samba giving London a taste of Brazil at the Olympics closing ceremony, the scene was set for a Proms first. The São Paulo Symphony Orchestra made its UK debut at the Royal Albert Hall last week, with their new chief conductor Marin Alsop, who took over the helm of the 48-year-old ensemble earlier this year.

An American feast, with music from both North and South, the Prom opened with Dvořák’s New World Symphony, a piece Alsop recorded to great acclaim in 2008 with her previous ensemble, the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra. As then, this was a detailed, straightforward account. There was seriousness of purpose – well, this is a Symphony in that stark key of D minor – and not a hint of sentimentality. Perhaps that was what was missing on this occasion: some warmth in the Largo, with its eloquently shaped but questionably tuned cor anglais solo, would have been welcome, as would more spirited abandon in the dancing rhythms. The wind was sometimes ragged. Still, the strings had a polished, silvery sound, with crisp attack; the brass was impactful.

While the first half felt disappointingly flat, it was clear from the confident, loud timpani and brass that opened the second half that the musicians had returned to the stage with new energy and focus. Copland’s Fanfare for the Common Man was paired with American composer Joan Towers’s less-familiar Fanfare the Uncommon Woman of 1986, written for the same forces: both were performed with panache.

And then we were into the South American section of the programme, featuring works by Villa-Lobos and Ginastera. Not that this signaled a turn to a lively party atmosphere along the lines of some Proms by fellow South American Orchestra, the Simón Bolívar: while both might have the exciting and purposeful mission to put themselves on the map alongside the world's greatest orchestras, São Paulo seems to be taking a more straight-faced approach.

Villa-Lobos’s Momoprécoce conjures up the world of a children's carnival in Rio. Its delicate orchestral effects, with ethereal string harmonics and dark colours, seem more akin to Ravel and Berg than the bold, vivid colours you might associate with a Brazilian festival. Moments are enchanting but, somehow, the overall impression seems less than the sum of it parts. Nelson Freire was the distinguished piano soloist, although from my stalls seat his masterful yet nuanced playing was sadly overpowered by the orchestra.

Ginastera’s Estancia, a riotous piece with propulsive rhythms, showed off what this orchestra can do. Alsop sashayed on the podium; the musicians on stage powered through the vibrant score in heady fashion; the audience revelled in it all, and we were rewarded with two encores. Let’s hope this orchestra returns to the Proms: how this promising partnership develops will be fascinating to hear.