Glennie’s powerful solo turn sparks São Paulo orchestra’s Chicago debut

Wed Oct 14, 2009 at 10:58 am

By Lawrence A. Johnson

Percussionist Evelyn Glennie performed James MacMillan’s Veni, Veni Emmanuel with the Orquestra de São Paulo Monday night at the Harris Theater.

For an example of the internationalization of classical music, one could hardly do better than the appearance Monday  of the Orquestra de São Paulo at the Harris Theater.

The Brazilian orchestra’s current music director is French, the ensemble was headlined Monday night by a Scottish percussionist and conducted in its Chicago debut by an African-American from Indiana.

The Orquestra de São Paulo, like all South American ensembles, currently labors in the background with media star and new L.A. Philharmonic music director Gustavo Dudamel and his Simon Bolivar Youth Orchestra of Venezuela grabbing the lion’s share of international press attention from that continent.

But the 55-year old ensemble has played an important part in Brazil’s musical history and gave a solid accounting of itself Monday under guest conductor, Kazem Abdullah. Most impressive are the strings, which were  spotlighted in the Bachiana brasileiras No. 4 of Heitor Villa-Lobos.

Villa-Lobos wrote nine works in the Bach-inspired series. Originally composed for solo piano, he later orchestrated No. 4 in 1941. It’s not one of the most distinctive or memorable in the set,  its retooled Bach cadences and swooning strings verging on Hollywood with a bit of Gershwin Goes to Rio thrown in.  Still, it provided a worthy showcase for the Brazilians’ dark, rich strings, the luxuriant opening Preludio recalling Stokowski’s deep-pile Bach transcriptions.

In addition to honoring their finest composer, Villa-Lobos,  in this 50th anniversary year of his  death, it was good to be reminded that Brazil’s musical history predates 1900 with the opener by Alberto Nepomuceno (1864-1920). Educated in Europe, Nepomuceno’s music marks a bridge between European influences and a burgeoning , more national style. That evolution is palpable in the tuneful Prelude to Nepomuceno’s unfinished opera O Garatuja, its colorful dance-inflected rhythms put across with brassy brilliance under Abdullah’s firmly pointed direction.

The undoubted highlight of Monday night’s program was provided by the evening’s soloist, Dame Evelyn Glennie.

Many percussion concertos are more enjoyable to watch than to hear, with the soloist dashing between a bestiary of bizarre instruments. A few rise above the standard athletic sonic overkill, including that of Joseph Schwantner and Veni, Veni Emmanuel by James MacMillan, the latter heard Monday. 

Premiered with great fanfare at London’s Proms concerts in 1992, Veni, Veni Emmanuel put the Scottish pair on the map, effectively launching international careers for both Glennie and MacMillan.  The concerto’s theatrical element shouldn’t  obscure the genuine musical richness with its unorthodox Christian inspiration, and deftly judged mix of flashy solo display with plainchant and atonal elements, all somehow worked into a punchy yet substantial musical whole.

It’s hard not to be distracted by the visuals with the striking, silver-haired Glennie briskly striding from one end of the stage to the other, part Druid priestess, part bespectacled English Department professor.  Performing barefoot as is her style—the hearing-impaired soloist  judges her playing by the instruments’ vibrations—the percussionist’s performance was a tour de force, unleashing daunting ferocity as well as nuanced playing on an array of drums, cymbals, congas and, marimbas. Abdullah and the orchestra provided supportive accompaniment. 

The young Indiana-born musician, a former assistant conductor at the Metropolitan Opera,  closed the program with the suite from Bartok’s ballet The Miraculous Mandarin.  A shocker in its day for its no-holds-barred musical violence and lurid scenario—a prostitute and her gang lure three patrons to a room to rob them—-the music has a sonic impact and whipcrack brutality that still pack a wallop.

Abdullah led a performance that had the requisite volume and brassy sheen but little of the score’s wildness and brutality. The journeyman maestro tends to conduct in a four-square style, often emphasizing well-balanced individual pages, while losing tension and sacrificing the broader musical architecture. For all the noise and speed, this was a curiously bloodless and literal performance, which also underlined the lack of distinction in the orchestra’s woodwinds. The principals’ bland solos made little of their many opportunities, this mild Mandarin lacking an essential sleaze factor.

 Monday’s event was co-presented with Access Living, an advocacy and support group for the disabled.

Posted in Performances

One Response to “Glennie’s powerful solo turn sparks São Paulo orchestra’s Chicago debut”

  1. Posted Oct 14, 2009 at 12:49 pm by Alexander Phoenix

    Great performance! Amazing orchestra with a brilliant sound.

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