Originally commissioned by the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra, and premiered in 1977, Toru Takemitsu’s A Flock Descends Into the Pentagonal Garden takes inspiration from both a dream the composer had shortly after the commissioning of the work, as well as from the use of pentatonic scales on African and Asian musical traditions. The São Paulo Symphony Orchestra (OSESP) performed the work as one of this evening’s highlights, which also featured Debussy’s La Mer and Two Preludes (orchestrated by Colin Matthews) and Scriabin’s Piano Concerto in F sharp minor, interpreted by Bertrand Chamayou. The orchestra was conducted by OSESP’s associate conductor Celso Antunes, known for his performances of 20th-century music.

Every since conductor Marin Alsop and artistic director Arthur Nestrovski’s tenure began in 2010, the OSESP has tried to devise programs that pitch compositions from diverging traditions or tendencies, using some element in common as programmatic cue. This past weekend’s program proposed a very delicate balance of musical perceptions: the different approaches to musical evocation, from Takemitsu to Scriabin, mediated by two works of Debussy, whom Takemitsu acknowledged as his great mentor. The OSESP’s 2015 annual program, themed “Places of Music”, aims at enhancing audiences’ perceptions by focusing on the different physical or metaphysical places music springs from or takes us to, a concept that shone through in the night’s repertoire.

The program started with Colin Matthew’s orchestration of two of Debussy’s Preludes — La cathédrale engloutie and Général Lavine – eccentric — which presented in concentrated form the contrasting views that shaped the night: La cathédrale, one of Debussy’s most famous preludes, presents the harmonically ambiguous chords of perfect fourths and fifths that rendered comparisons with the Impressionist movement in painting; and Général Lavine, which brings about the French composer’s interest in jazz. Matthews' orchestrations were very inventive, and in certain passages, were quite able to evoke the spirit of the pieces — especially in the first section of La cathédrale, the orchestral colours really did sound like the waters parting for the Cathedral of Ys. In Général Lavine, on the other hand, the brassy arrangements often hammered the sensibility of Debussy’s music, turning it into something more akin to Gilbert & Sullivan’s comic operas.

Next, French pianist Bertrand Chamayou took to the stage. His intimacy with 19th-century music provided the necessary strength and lyricism to Scriabin’s only Piano Concerto. Although there were dynamic problems in his relation to the orchestra — in all the tutti sections, the piano was engulfed by the ensemble, and its sounds all but disappeared — the evocative qualities of the Russian composer’s work shone through. The concerto, which highlights the use of the left hand in its outer movements, allowed Chamayou to demonstrate his ability to seamlessly connect the different registers of his instrument. During the central second movement, characterized by the use of sourdine, the music sounds misty, mysterious, its five variations presented as a chorale emphasizing Scriabin’s interpretation of F sharp – a key the composer associated with the colour blue, and spiritual and elevated thoughts.  

After the intermission, the orchestra returned for Takemitsu’s A Flock Descends Into the Pentagonal Garden. Built around the dream image of a flock of white birds led by a blackbird descending into a five-sided garden, the piece presents F sharp as a central drone note and compositional nucleus, upon which pentatonic scales and chords emerge and fade as in a dream, the work’s mathematical construction meant to be grasped at an instinctive level: five-note scales and chords built upon the intervallic relation between the black keys of the piano spread throughout the orchestral range, conveying the many-faceted motions of flocks of birds in flight. Like many others pieces in Takemitsu’s oeuvre, it is less about the mathematical and theoretical system inbuilt into it, and more about the acoustic surface presented: a narrative world-making process that demands creative listening and attentive performance. In the composer’s words, “by using numbers I want to integrate music with the real, changing world.” These subtleties of colour and timbre came to light in the OSESP’s performance, even if the connection of musical phrases and structures — the backbone of Takemitsu’s narrative — did occasionally falter. Antunes’ enthusiasm and command of the ensemble was not hampered by an apparent leg injury (he conducted the orchestra from a high stool), and the group responded with precision to his gestures.

Closing the night’s performance, Debussy’s La Mer earned the orchestra a standing ovation. Famous for its evocation of the movement and lighting of the sea, it was properly performed without a hint of mimetism. On the contrary, Antunes’ interpretation highlighted the inner harmonic movements, the melodies and counter-melodies that arise and sink in the sea of orchestral colours, reminiscent of the French ballet’s tableux and choreographies.