São Paulo's Little-Known Orchestral Treasure

I wish I could fully explain why I find myself so captivated by the São Paulo Symphony Orchestra. Whatever the reason, it remains one of the most endearing (and little known) stories in the world of symphony orchestras.
The São Paulo Symphony is a full-time orchestra that plays about 30 weeks of subscription concerts (each program three times) in a stunningly beautiful concert hall with terrific acoustics designed by the late Russell Johnson. The hall seats about 1500, the series is about 70 percent sold by subscription, and when single-ticket sales are added the total sales for the season are well over 90 percent. The programs are adventurous, including a good deal of contemporary music and a good deal of Brazilian music mostly unknown to the rest of us. (If you're interested in discovering a wonderful composer, seek out Camargo Mozart Guarnieri; you can easily find recordings of his music at Arkivmusic.com, and many of them are by the São Paulo Symphony.)

The São Paulo Symphony is very heavily supported by the municipal government of São Paulo. I believe that they and the people of São Paulo consider the orchestra to be one of their civic treasures. Because of heavy government support, the ticket prices can be kept reasonable, and that is why the concerts are over 90 percent sold. I attended the opening night of their 2009 season--São Paulo is south of the Equator, so their season is the opposite of the American and European season; it begins in March and ends in December--and the program was totally sold out for all three nights. Yan Pascal Tortelier conducted Elgar's "Enigma" Variations and Rachmaninoff's Second Symphony (which he blessedly performed without cuts, proving what a wonderful piece it is as Rachmaninoff wrote it).

The São Paulo Symphony has gone through some dramatic changes recently, including the departure of their longtime music director. Tortelier has agreed to be their principal conductor for the next two years while the orchestra searches for a permanent music director. They are re-examining their governance structure, with an extremely intelligent and dedicated board and management team, so that they can operate as effectively as possible. In order to learn from models in America and Europe, they have engaged me and Timothy Walker, chief executive and artistic director of the London Philharmonic Orchestra, to guide them and provide information about orchestral structure elsewhere.

What's so attractive and engaging about this organization is everyone's enthusiasm and desire to create something very special in São Paulo. Example: Tortelier decided to give the musicians a break in one of the rehearsal days for this opening concert, so he started rehearsal an hour late, telling them the day before that they could all "sleep in" for an extra hour. At that shortened rehearsal, as the clock indicated the end, he said "I wish I had five or ten more minutes to really finish up our work." The orchestra said "well of course you do--you started an hour late!"  It is hard to imagine an American orchestra "giving" that ten minutes spontaneously!

So it is with the management and the board as well: every question they ask, every avenue they explore, is aimed at being the best. The organization has an academy to train young musicians, and it has a publishing arm that is creating critical editions of previously unpublished Brazilian music. The orchestra then performs and often records that music, and brings it on tour. They understand that a major role for them is to introduce Brazilian symphonic compositions to the world through touring and recording.

Now, if they had all the right philosophies and attitudes but didn't make music at a high level, it wouldn't matter so much. But the quality of the orchestra is superb. You know that you have attended a wonderful concert when the music keeps playing in your head two, three, even four days later--and that is what happened with the Rachmaninoff. The string tone was gorgeous, the balances and blend of sections were ideal (a factor of the musicians, the conductor, and the hall), and the orchestra played as if it actually listens to itself, with the musicians interacting musically with each other. The overall performance of the Rachmaninoff was one of the most satisfying I've ever heard of that piece.

This is an orchestral organization that thinks about itself, about its role and place in Brazilian society and in São Paulo as well as in the larger world of music. It seems to gear everything it does to performing every part of that role as well as possible. Perhaps that's why I find them so captivating. Should you find yourself in São Paulo, whether on a business trip or on vacation, go see and hear this orchestra. I guarantee that you will be shocked (in a good way) at its quality, and the quality of its remarkable concert hall. You will be as captivated as I am.

June 26, 2009 10:20 AM | | Comments (6)



I cannot applaud Mr. Fogel enough for bringing up some truly remarkable musical goods from South America. Bravo! I'd just would like to correct a small pen slip that may difficult people's future searches--Camargo's name is Mozart Camargo Guarnieri.

Well said Mr. Fogel, great words about OSESP, an even better was your reply about Mr. Etzel´s comment.

I had the honor of working with OSESP as part of my summer internship in 2003. Everything from the administration to the hall, to the musicians is run incredibly well. They are the by far the leaders when it comes to orchestra management in South America and certainly within Brazil.

Thanks for this great article Henry! Makes me proud of my native city and it's a also wonderful case study for other orchestras in Latin America and beyond.
-Fred Gouveia

Carlos Gomes Prize 2008

The most important prize went to Maestro John Neschling, ex-Artistic Director and ex-Chief Conductor of the São Paulo State Symphony Orchestra, . With this prize, the musical media pays justice to the most important Brazilian music personality, as John Neschling was the lieder of the most significant musical-cultural enterprise of Brazil in the last years which was the construction of Sala São Paulo and the restructuring of the Osesp (São Paulo State Symphony Orchestra.”Concerto, Guia Musical de Música Erudita - Junho 2009”

I think it is just fair to mention the name of John Neschling without who we, Paulistas, would never have had such an incredible orchestra. Important also, because with the success of OSESP, orchestras throughout the country realized that they could emulate his example and the musical scene in Brazil has changed for ever. Just as in opera, it was “before Callas” and “after Callas”, here is “before Neschling” and “after Neschling”. The work of Neschling is similar with that of Simon Rattle with the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra.

I had the privilege of performing in that concert hall when I was a member of the Youth Orchestra of the Americas in the summer of 2003. It's a magnificent building and our concert there was one of the highlights of the tour.

Very good but you only forgot to mention the name of the responsible for the rebirth of the São Paulo Orchestra, 12 years ago. Perhaps it has become polically incorrect to mention his name in connection with his Creation. Without him, the above article simply would not have been written. I very much doubt you´d write such an article 15 years ago. The music director and artistic director John Neschling,creator and responsible for everything you wrote above, was dismissed by email, while on holiday, in January of this year, despite a two-year clause in his contract. You should be better informed.

Because I believe that this blog should be an open forum, I have approved M. Etzel's comment to appear here. Because I have done some consulting for the Sao Paulo Symphony Orchestra, I well aware of its history and of facts surrounding the situation to which he refers. It would be inappropriate for me to comment because of that relationship, other than to say that no one person is ever "responsible for everything" in the creation of an orchestra, and the situation is significantly more complex than outlined by M. Etzel.


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