The heart of the Edinburgh Festival is the exciting parade of visiting orchestras at the Usher Hall, which was packed full to give a warm welcome the sizeable São Paulo Symphony Orchestra making their first visit to Scotland, and their Principal Conductor Marin Alsop, now well-known through her appearances at the Proms, making her Festival debut. Alsop won a conducting fellowship to study under Leonard Bernstein and, inspired by his altruism using classical music to connect to the world, is a passionate ambassador for the benefits of getting young people involved in music. Bernstein’s Chichester Psalms was a powerful and symbolic choice to open, a truly boundary-breaking work allowing Alsop to honour her friend and mentor while celebrating Edinburgh’s choral tradition. With the 130-strong Edinburgh Festival Chorus up in the organ gallery, there was excitement in the air as Alsop entered in her trademark red-cuffed jacket.

Marin Alsop © Grant Leighton
Marin Alsop
© Grant Leighton
By turns joyous and serene, Bernstein’s Chichester Psalms is sung to Hebrew texts and is an exuberant and challenging work, particularly the first part in infectious 7/4 time. The orchestra and choir gathered a noisy energy with exciting dissonant chords, seven percussion players kept busy with spiky tune cacophony in the orchestra. Bernstein insisted that a boy sing the solo in Psalm 23 for liturgical reasons, and treble Taylor Turkington, a St Mary’s Cathedral chorister gave a full and yet sensitive performance with a gorgeous harp accompaniment. In a punchy psalm sandwich, tenors and basses were in full throated attack in “Why do the nations rage?” before peace returned again. The fine singing in the big tunes in the final part in a blended rich tone was in contrast to the electrifying final pianissimo unaccompanied Psalm 133 “Behold how good and pleasant it is…” the Festival Chorus was on splendid form. Alsop, controlling the forces with gimlet precision certainly did her mentor proud.

Heitor Villa-Lobos composed a series of Chôros, weaving classical and Brazilian traditional genres together in upbeat Latin rhythms. Chôros 10 began in the orchestra with Brazilian rainforest birdsong and unusual instrument colourations with solo fragments including cello and muted trombones. Suddenly the mood changed, with the bassoons setting up a chattering rhythm spreading like forest wildfire through the orchestra up to the chorus who took up the percussive chant of “jakata kamaraja tékéré kiméréjé” in seemingly chaotic syncopation. Chorus master Christopher Bell must have had them rehearsing by doing a foot shuffle as the altos in particular were doing a beguiling static dance to keep on the beat. Layers of rhythm were added topped by an array of Brazilian percussion – the orchestra packed all of their percussion for this tour – the whole piece was great fun to watch and listen to, the whirl of animated players and singers was somehow controlled by Alsop into cohesion.

Shostakovich was in disgrace after his opera The Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District went down badly with the authorities. Stalin’s regime of terror, when even the act of receiving a pair of shoes from abroad or sowing the crops too late could result in denunciation was unpredictable and deadly. There was enormous pressure for Shostakovich for his Fifth Symphony to please. The work had a tumultuous ovation, harmonic enough to be considered acceptable, yet carrying humanitarian message of overcoming adversity. Alsop and the São Paulo SO gave a barnstorming account of the work, energetically passionate, serious and life-affirming.

Alsop, a very physical conductor, used the whole podium, turning this way, then that to sections for each cue, her entire body completely living the music, genuinely expressive rather than histrionic. Conducting without a score, she had a direct line to all her players, exciting from the first minor 6th notes as she shaped the performance before our eyes. The string playing was rich, dynamic and passionate from delicate solos and ensembles to vigorous unison. Lively woodwinds and solid brass added depth and darkness, yet jollity too with mischievous rubato in the second movement marionette-like waltz. The slow movement began with the back desks of the violins in lament, other players slowly joining in building harmonic riches to a breaking wave of emotion. Finally, a reckless headlong rush to a required heroic ending was nevertheless packed with tension, the players leaning forward in eagerness to respond to Alsop’s command.

Thunderous applause brought Alsop back for an encore of the March from The Love of Three Oranges and some Brazilian samba, soloists standing up jazz-style. It’s a big grown-up orchestra yet it retains youthful enthusiasm, and I do love it when players shake hands or hug their desk partners at the end.