On Friday, 25 October, the São Paulo Symphony presented an energetic and polished performance at the Southbank Centre. Part of the “The Rest is Noise Festival” focused on 20th century music, this programme took the turbulent 1960s as its theme. It brought together Leonard Bernstein’s ever-popular West Side Story: Symphonic Dances with Luciano Berio’s influential yet rarely-performed Sinfonia for Eight Solo Voices and Orchestra, and Brazilian composer Camargo Guarnieri’s 1963 Symphony no. 4 “Brasília”.

Marin Alsop © Grant Leighton
Marin Alsop
© Grant Leighton

Conductor Marin Alsop spoke from the podium before each work, and had the orchestra demonstrate several passages from the Berio before performing the whole thing. Her mix of humor, informality, and genuinely helpful information set just the right tone for the evening, helping the audience find their way into the music.

Leonard Bernstein, an important mentor to Alsop, was another thread tying the evening together. In addition to composing West Side Story, he had an important role in the other works as well. He commissioned Berio’s Sinfonia for its première with the New York Philharmonic, and was an important supporter of Guarnieri, who dedicated the Symphony no. 4 to him in appreciation.

Guarnieri’s work opened the evening with a pleasing mixture of folk-like melodies, catchy rhythms, and complex harmonies, rendered with confident precision by the orchestra. The string section achieved a glorious cohesion and richness of sound in the broadly sweeping unison melodies that opened and closed the second movement. The third and final movement was peppy and dance-like, with Alsop swaying and dancing along. Her conducting style is focused and compact, but also warm and inviting, more fellow collaborator than authoritarian leader. There was a palpable sense of enjoyment and teamwork from the orchestra that I have rarely detected in other orchestra-conductor relationships.

The Bernstein, which followed, was tight and energetic. It was the more contemplative moments that particularly stood out, however. The quiet, poignant Finale was especially touching, with the orchestra conveying a depth of emotion I have rarely heard in this music.

Berio’s Sinfonia encompassed the second half of the programme. The work, for orchestra and eight amplified vocalists, was premièred in 1968 by the New York Philharmonic and the Swingle Singers under the baton of Berio himself. It encapsulates the chaotic, revolutionary spirit of its time with music that combines modernist dissonances with copious references to music of the past. The third movement in particular is a kaleidoscopic tapestry of quotations, from Bach to Mahler to Stravinsky to Boulez. The scherzo of Mahler’s second symphony is the constant thread running throughout, with bits and pieces of music from all eras juxtaposed against it, and an equally eclectic jumble of literary texts sung and spoken by the vocalists.

It’s one of those pieces that looms large in the history of music, but is rarely actually performed – indeed, this was my first time hearing it live. I tried hard to hear it as it would have sounded in the 1960s, when musical quotation of this sort was a radical proposition. But it is perhaps a tribute to the work’s lasting influence that it doesn’t seem particularly radical anymore. Quotation is part and parcel of the “post-modern” aesthetic which, nowadays, already feels a bit antiquated itself. 45 years later, there is in fact an oddly myopic quality to the choice of quotations in Sinfonia. It’s hard to imagine that a similar piece written today, especially one meant to engage so directly with contemporary politics, would limit itself to the classical canon. It seems odd from today’s vantage point that this work has nothing of Bob Dylan or the Beatles or any of the other vernacular music that was so central to the radical politics of the 60s (at least, nothing that I could pick out).

The orchestra and the Swingle Singers (obviously in a completely different line-up to the one that premièred it) gave a stellar performance, full of color, vitality, and drama. If certain aspects of the piece feel a bit dated now, it nonetheless remains a vital and thought-provoking work.

After the Berio, Alsop led the orchestra and singers in a delightful encore, James P. Johnson’s 1944 Victory Stride. A jazzy romp, it was an opportunity for the ensemble to let loose after the focused intensity of the Berio. With raucous trombone glissandos, a brilliant jazz clarinet solo, and a round robin of scatting from the Swingle Singers, it brought out the sheer energy and joyousness that are the hallmarks of this fine orchestra. As they did when I saw them perform last year, at the end of the concert each musician shook hands with or hugged their stand partner. I don’t know whether this arises out of tradition or policy, but there is something surprisingly touching about it. It represents much of what is so wonderful about this ensemble: though they play with the technical proficiency of a top professional orchestra, they somehow retain the spirit and passion of a wide-eyed youth orchestra.