If you were to conjure up images of two of the most disparate climates and cultures in the world, you’d have a hard time beating Brazil vs. Russia. One is a land of balmy beaches, a vast ethnic melting pot, and sexual freedom; the other is cold, culturally insulated and repressive. That doesn’t stop great musicians from playing authentic and stirring renditions of “foreign” music, as happened at Page Auditorium when the Orquestra de Sao Paulo (OSESP) included Tchaikovsky’s monumental fifth symphony on their program. 

OSESP is reputed to be the premiere orchestra in Latin America, and under the direction of artistic director and conductor John Neschling they have gained a worldwide reputation. Their appearance at Duke University was part of a relatively brief tour of the east coast of the U.S. This was a rainy, dismal election night resulting in one of the smallest audiences for a major Duke Performances presentation – but those hearty souls in attendance got to hear a magnificent orchestra and some great works.

The first half of the program was devoted to native sons of Brazil, Camargo Guarnieri and Heitor Villa-Lobos, considered the most influential and important Brazilian composers. Guarnieri’s Overture Concertante is a rambling work alternating between jagged, Latin rhythms and lyrical sections — some nice ideas and playing, but ultimately overlong and predictable.  This concert was about midpoint in their tour and there was a sense of boredom and “day at the office” playing that did not bode well for the rest of the night; however, that quickly and dramatically changed.

Villa-Lobos was an incredibly prolific composer who is universally respected but continues to suffer from not quite breaking through into the rotation of big-name orchestra repertoire. The big exception, as far as his popularity and exposure, is his compositions for classical guitar. A great deal of similar compositional structure and harmonic ideas used in his guitar works was present in his second cello concerto, performed by Antonio Meneses. Villa-Lobos’ primary instrument was the cello, but I would be quite surprised if he had ever heard anyone even coming close to the technical and artistic command exhibited by Meneses. This is a big 4-movement concerto, with evocative orchestration and a perfect amalgam of Villa-Lobos’ style and sound. Meneses, who is the current cellist in the Beaux Arts Trio, effortlessly tossed of sizzling fast octave scales, piston-like spiccato bowing, and a remarkable full and silky tone. At times it seemed like he was overpowering the orchestra. This was one of the most spectacular feats of cello playing I have ever heard.

A few years back, on this same stage, the Moscow Symphony played this most Russian of symphonies – Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 5 in E minor. They seemed to own it and it was hard to imagine anyone even coming close to that performance.  OSESP changed that opinion – although it was their unique personality and style. The first movement was quite a bit faster than I had heard before but it eventually seemed convincing and natural.

The slow Andante Cantabile movement was played with such pathos and feeling that it was as if they all had a Russian soul. The one unusual practice was that conductor Neschling had little or no break between movements. Each of these sections has its own character and this attaca style failed to let the emotions of each movement sink in and resonate. As anyone who ever played this symphony knows, this is great fun, with the most exciting being the exhilarating finale. The OSESP milked it for all its brilliance, with the result being a resounding standing ovation that resonated like a full house. They returned for two interesting, but unannounced encores. The first was a fascinating Latin-tinged dance featuring the orchestra becoming one big percussion instrument. The second, a long and Romantic-style sounding movement, is still a mystery! Would it have been such a hardship to announce these selections? 

A special thanks to Kathy Silbiger, director of Duke Performances, who generously provided tickets to this concert free of charge to members of the Duke Symphony Orchestra.