Music Review: Sao Paulo State Symphony at Strathmore

STANDOUT SOLOIST: Percussionist Evelyn Glennie.
STANDOUT SOLOIST: Percussionist Evelyn Glennie.
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By Robert Battey
Friday, October 23, 2009

As symphony orchestras go, the Sao Paulo State Symphony Orchestra is still in adolescence; it was formed in 1954 and has had only four music directors. Reflecting the multicultural nature of Brazil, its roster of musicians includes many European and Russian names. On Wednesday night at the Music Center at Strathmore, the orchestra gave its penultimate concert of a grueling 12-city tour, showing nary a hint of fatigue.

South American orchestras I've heard have been quite variable, but the Sao Paulo ensemble must surely be among the continent's finest. All sections were strong. The string players displayed a wide range of playing styles, and certainly lacked the unanimity of the Vienna Philharmonic or the Cleveland Orchestra. But there were no slackers anywhere; each musician gave full measure, and both fast and singing passages came through with impressive clarity. The woodwinds featured a wonderfully idiosyncratic oboist whose colorful playing anchored a fine assemblage; everything in tune. The brass were solid, too; no cracked notes all night, although some entrances weren't quite together. Overall, this was more interesting, lively playing than we get from the Baltimore and National symphonies.

The program included two works by the mid-20th-century Brazilian Camargo Guarnieri. American composer Aaron Copland praised Guarnieri highly, and the latter's atmospheric, bluesy style clearly influenced his own Latin American works. The principal work on the first half was "Veni, Veni Emmanuel," a concerto for percussion and orchestra by Scottish composer James MacMillan. It's a massive work that was written for Evelyn Glennie and given its U.S. premiere by her and the National Symphony Orchestra in 1994.

What does one say about this unique artist? The first full-time classical solo percussionist in history, she has a riveting concentration and charismatic playing style that would capture the public imagination even were it not for her deafness, which makes her accomplishments all the more remarkable. MacMillan's concerto is a mishmash of violent atonality and devotional music (it is based on 15th-century plainsong and liturgical texts). Glennie, barefoot so as to pick up vibrations, marched primly across the stage, attacking a huge array of instruments with her signature intensity. A long, gentle interlude with the bass marimba was quite affecting, but the musical narrative seemed diffuse and arbitrary.

The orchestra's conductor for this tour was the rising young American maestro Kazem Abdullah. He comes across as likable and energetic, but not yet very deep. His beat was clear but not very detailed, and his cuing was generic -- the same gesture for a few instruments or for the entire ensemble. The rhythmic complexities of Brahms's Symphony No. 2, which ended the program, were often out of focus, and Abdullah did not guide the brass sufficiently, either in unanimity of attack or in balancing them against the rest of the orchestra. But he has talent and looks, and will likely continue to rise quickly.

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