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September 25, 2007

São Paulo's Orchestral Jewel

Much as we'd prefer to deny it, most of us have our fair share of prejudices. I imagine that many of us would state a belief that the best orchestras in the world are either European or North American; some might be willing to add Japan to the mix. But as I've come to know the São Paulo State Symphony Orchestra, through a large number of recordings and a couple of days spent with them in Brazil, there is no question in my mind that they must occupy a place on that elite list...

The performance I heard of Bach's Mass in B Minor, led by Claus Peter Flor, was played with astonishing brilliance as well as commitment and warmth. The trumpet playing would have done any orchestra proud, as would the solo flute and oboe. The performance was not "HIP," nor was it old-fashioned - it combined elements of both approaches convincingly.

But having listened before and after my visit to a wide range of recorded repertoire by this orchestra, under its music director John Neschling, and having spent a few days with its administration and board, I came away wildly impressed.

In the past ten years, the São Paulo Symphony has gone from a government-run entity riddled with inefficiency and artistic inconsistency to an orchestra that is artistically first-class, and an organization that is achieving some astonishing things. They play more than 130 concerts a year (96 subscription concerts); their home hall is one of Russell Johnson's great achievements - a renovated train station! The São Paulo Symphony operates an academy that trains young musicians, a publishing house that publishes Brazilian music, an archive for Brazilian music, and an educational program that serves more than 40,000 youngsters. The foundation (which is really a board) that oversees the organization was formed in 2004 - so much of this has come into being in the past three years. The music director, John Neschling, has been a remarkably powerful force in building the artistic quality, and their many recordings (they make about five or six per year) demonstrate both their high level and their versatility.

In addition to their home performances, the São Paulo Symphony tours regularly to Europe, the United States, and throughout South America. They have a professional chorus (paid) associated with them, and operate at the budget level of major U.S. orchestras (almost $30 million per year). Their executive director is a former trumpet player from the orchestra - and he has a law degree as well! The State of São Paulo owns the hall, but the Orchestra operates it at no cost, with their offices there as well, and they have the ability to rent it out and retain the rental monies, in exchange for being responsible for taking care of the hall.

The time spent with the São Paulo Symphony was a deeply gratifying, even moving, experience. Here, in a place where one might not think to find it, was an orchestra performing at a high international level, demonstrating remarkable ingenuity and initiative in so many different areas, and exploring ways to engage more deeply with their city and its citizens.

Posted by hfogel at September 25, 2007 9:10 AM

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I have conducted that orhestra several times in the past few years in repertoire ranging from Rachmaninoff to Nielsen to R. Strauss and some Brazilizn music, and can testify for every word in Mr. Fogel's article.

Posted by: uril segal at September 26, 2007 2:22 AM

I have a friend who was part of the acoustic team for the Sao Paulo concert hall. He said it's a great place, and I should try to get there.

Posted by: Jeffrey Biegel at September 27, 2007 7:26 AM

I had the pleasure of interning with them during college and I was amazed at the experience. Their staff, musicians, conductor, hall, the entire operation is incredibly well-run! I'm glad I had the chance to learn from them and root for their continued growth!

Posted by: Fred Gouveia at September 27, 2007 5:23 PM

In 2006 this orchestra hosted the International Villa-Lobos Piano Competition, and being one of the contestants I witnessed the highest level of organization, musicianship, professionalism topped with the brazilian warmth and joy. It made me really proud to be a Brazilian classical musician!!!

Posted by: Simone Leitao at September 28, 2007 12:53 PM