“To begin with, you must listen with perfect concentration and open your ears wide for what you are hearing. Very soon you will comprehend the intentions of the sounds themselves.” As in all of Takemitsu’s music, silence is a key element. Green, his short work for orchestra, subtitled November Steps II, opened this São Paulo Symphony Orchestra concert. It is heavily influenced by the music of Debussy, albeit with equally great influence of Messiaen’s sonority. The work is constructed from webs of modal modes that accumulate dissonances, becoming occasionally quarter-tonal. These modal elements are audible throughout the piece, but become even more so towards the end of the work as the music slowly approaches a static stance. In Takemitsu, the framing and positioning of sound in, around, or against silence highlights the subtleties of the work through the reverberation of the instruments.

Julian Bliss © Ben Wright
Julian Bliss
© Ben Wright

Although the OSESP has proven its skills in international concert halls – their performance of Luciano Berio’s Sinfonia in London in 2013 was widely lauded – the orchestra’s programmes often avoid renowned composers from the 20th and 21st centuries. As such, Takemitsu’s work demanded an attentiveness of listening the ensemble is perhaps little familiar with, a characteristic highlighted by Mr Muñoz’s interpretation of Green: a clear, Webern-like sonority, in which precision of attack overcame the exploration of resonance. The result bore little subtlety to the different degrees of silence, denoting an approach to soundlessness that was more Western than Japanese in its essence.

Julian Bliss performed Nielsen’s Clarinet Concerto, a one-movement piece subdivided in four thematic sections, the concerto is clearly tonal in its language. The work was written for (and dedicated to) Aage Oxenvad, then clarinettist of the Copenhagen Wind Quintet, and premiered three years before Nielsen’s death in 1931. The piece contrasts, with different degrees of confrontation, the tonalities of F and E major, and thematic and tonal tension is constantly reignited by the snare-drum whenever such conflicts near some kind of resolution.

Clearly the centerpiece of the evening’s programme, the concerto dictated the overall sonority of the other two pieces scheduled. Julian Bliss was precise and fluent, displaying excellent dynamic control on the clarinet, and subtly but clearly highlighting the rhythmic motifs of the different themes underlying the piece, thus rendering the palindromic structure of the work more perceptible. However, there seemed to be a small divide between soloist and orchestra, as if their dialogue was interposed by a thin wall. Although the orchestra’s performance seemed closer to the composer’s écriture (as defined by Pierre Boulez), the contrast caused by the constant shifting of tonalities, or by the contrasting lyrical and block-like sections, sounded like an after-effect of the music rather than its intention. On the other hand, whenever the ensemble was reduced to a chamber formation, the strings produced beautifully different timbres.

Bliss returned for an encore. Accompanied by the orchestra, he performed Rimsky-Korsakov's Flight of the Bumblebee with apparent ease, each group of musical phrases seamlessly linked to the other. Differently than with Nielsen’s concerto, the dialogue between group and soloist was fluid, and the orchestra kept up its pace with the speedy (but not rushed) performance of the clarinet.

After the intermission, Mr Muñoz returned for a precise performance of Beethoven's Symphony no. 8 in F major, conducted from memory. The OSESP shone through with a well-honed performance, displaying higher dynamic definition than in the previous compositions. Quite revealing about the orchestra, the suspension of musical ideas was much clearer in the Beethoven than in the Nielsen. The conductor’s Webern-like interpretation was also apparent here, as Mr Muñoz’s reading implied not a message or inner truth to be revealed or demonstrated in Beethoven’s symphony, but rather a precise and beautifully crafted mechanism of wondrous conception and realization.