In a spirited performance, Spanish conductor Jaime Martín led the São Paulo State Orchestra (OSESP) in a rendition of works inspired by literature: Joaquín Turina’s Danzas Fantásticas, op. 22 (inspired by José Mas' La orgía), and Manuel de Falla’s The Three-Cornered Hat (inspired by the work of Pedro Antonio de Alarcón). They were preceded by Hector Berlioz’s Harold in Italy with French violist Antoine Tamestit as soloist.

Antoine Tamestit © José Lavezzi
Antoine Tamestit
© José Lavezzi

Berlioz composed Harold in Italy in 1834. Commissioned by Niccolò Paganini, who had just bought a Stradivarius viola, the work features numerous pauses in the soloist part in an attempt to balance the orchestral contribution to the solo part. Dissatisfied with this characteristic, Paganini declined to perform the work. He would eventually hear it performed in 1838, and would acknowledge Berlioz's compositional craft.

The work features a melancholy, wandering central character Harold – allegedly inspired by Lord Byron’s poem Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage, though no definite elements of the poem seem to have made their way into Berlioz’s music. The main theme, delivered hesitantly at first, grows in confidence throughout the music until finally being presented in full by the end of the work. The OSESP performed in a similar fashion. Despite Mr Martín’s attempt to convey the lyricism in Berlioz’s composition, the orchestra seemed distant during the first movement, as if disconnected from the music. However, as the piece unfolded the ensemble seemed to gain confidence, and the counter-melodies established a progressively fuller dialog with Tamestit’s solo performance.

The French violist demonstrated a superb mastery of his instrument and of the musicality in his part, particularly during the second movement’s sul ponticello section, made to sound as if it were an electronic intervention over the orchestra. The violist also enhanced the character of his performance by moving through the stage. In the first movement, Tamestit started playing behind the first violin section, gradually moving to the solo position by Mr Martín’s side. At the start of the second movement Tamestit played next to the horn section, and at the beginning of the fourth movement, behind the violas, between bassoons and double-basses. This seemed devised to partially cover the melodic character, in an attempt to enhance the dialog between soloist and ensemble. After receiving a standing ovation, Tamestit returned for an encore, delivering a delicate, violistic interpretation of a movement from Bach’s Cello Suite no. 1.

After the intermission, Mr Martín returned to conduct Turina’s most famous work, Danzas Fantásticas – whose opening sounds also seemed to foretell of contemporary music’s compositional structures of timbre – and both of De Falla’s The Three-Cornered Hat suites. Mr Martín’s enthusiasm and fun in performing these works was evident, and here the OSESP seemed to share his energy. The conductor’s experience as a flautist also added a distinctive, renewed sonority to these pieces, as he seemed intent on subduing a little of the excess of the string sections in order to highlight the music played by brass and woodwind instruments. Although allowing for a distinct sound (and one might even make a case for a renewed listening of these Spanish classics), the performance lacked a little in clarity, particularly during the faster, more agile string parts. In several instances on both works, the conductor’s interpretive solutions seemed designed to stress the relevance of the traditional repertoire to contemporary music, particularly in his highlighting of timbral and textural passages, and pointing out that even in the work of less “avant-garde” composers one may find ideas to be carried out in less traditional scenarios.