There is a tendency in the reviews of Marin Alsop to start by mentioning the obvious; that is, she is the first female conductor to have conducted the last night of the Proms and that she is the first female Music Director of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra. So let me start with the surprising: that Alsop is Irish. She confided to us, much to the audience’s delight, that last week she was granted Irish citizenship, thus making her Ireland’s leading conductor. Last night she was conducting the São Paulo Symphony Orchestra of which she has been Principal Conductor since 2012.

Alsop is recognised for her intelligent approach to programming and last night was no exception. Starting with Terra Brasillis, a recent work (2011) by a young, contemporary, female Brazilian composer, Clarice Assad, we followed with Bernstein’s Symphonic Dances from West Side Story. Both these works represent music from the American continent, and both have connections to film music: the Terra Brasillis being written in the style of a film, while the latter is the eponym of the well-known film. Such programmatic elements were present in the second half as well with Mahler’s titanic Symphony no.1 in D major which was published in its final form in 1906. This allowed us to savour in reverse chronological order the huge transformation of orchestral music in the last hundred years.

Marin Alsop © Grant Leighton
Marin Alsop
© Grant Leighton

Terra Brasillis is a fantasia on the Brazilian National Anthem recounting the history of the country. It opens with unusual percussive sounds evocative of tribal drumming. As Assad explains in her notes to the piece, “the Portuguese navigator Pedro Álvares Cabral catches sight of the new coastline and comes ashore excitedly with the crew and beings to explore the land.” As good cinematic music should be, the cues for the introductions of the new characters were clear: the arrival of the slaves was marked by drumming while the Mozartean section for piano and orchestra signified the arrival of the Portuguese Court. The arrival of various ethnicities – Arabic, Japanese, Chinese and Jewish – were conveyed with mixed success. The augmented second of the harmonic minor scale might be a trifled hackneyed for the latter. The strings sounded neither as polished nor as in tune as one would have wished for. Nevertheless, the drive and energy of both Alsop and orchestra carried the music forward to its loud and percussive conclusion, a repetition of the anthem.

The West Side Story: Symphonic Dances by Bernstein, orchestrated by Ramin and Kostal, continued this cinematic trend. Alsop was taught by Bernstein and there was a familiarity here in thoroughly understanding her teacher’s intentions. Two things struck me in this interpretation: firstly, the rhythmic precision of Alsop’s conducting, and secondly, the excitement Alsop can ratchet up in the climaxes. The Prologue was rhythmically sharp which established the right groove. There were some terrific plucking sections from the cellos, while the brass section was alternatively cheeky and menacing. The tension and rivalry between the Jets and the Sharks became increasingly aggressive in “Mambo”, “Cool” and “Rumble” leaving Alsop practically dancing with excitement. It was not all tension though, and in the “Cha Cha” and the Finale there were moments of tenderness and repose which the orchestra handled very ably.

The performance of Mahler’s First Symphony proved just as compelling as the first half had been. There was a great sense of tension, of something momentous about to happen, in the tricky opening section of the first movement, despite some initial tuning issues among the woodwind and brass. The main theme was just at the right tempo with the suitable balance between leisureliness and alertness, conveying a sense of wonder at Spring’s awakening.

The second movement starts with a rustic, folky melody with increasingly energetic elaborations. Alsop handled this with characteristic dynamism, without ever losing a fine sense of attention to detail. The lilting Ländler Trio section provided a welcome relief.

The third movement depicts a hunter’s funeral with the animals as mourners. Its main theme is a minor key version of “Frère Jacques” which has a disturbing, recherché atmosphere. Here Alsop brought out the fantastical elements to the music to good effect, the oboe and trumpet being particularly noteworthy.

The apocalyptic last movement bursts forth with shocking force. The orchestra responded to Alsop’s frenetic directions as the movement exploded with visceral energy. The brass section, horns in particular, were outstanding, bringing this work to a glorious conclusion and the audience to its feet. Two charming, jazzy encores followed, leaving the audience in no doubt who was their favourite Irish-American conductor.