World-Renowned Conductor Marin Alsop Leads the Orquestra Sinfônica do Estado de São Paulo in a Groundbreaking Performance

Marin Alsop takes a bow at All together: A Global Ode to Joy in São Paulo, Brazil, with the Orquestra Sinfônica do Estado de São Paulo. (courtesy of OSESP)

The performance includes a fun Brazilian concerto for harmonica and orchestra

This October, the Harriman-Jewell Series presents a groundbreaking performance with the United States debut of the Orquestra Sinfônica do Estado de São Paulo. Kansas City is one of only three stops on the Brazilian orchestra’s U.S. tour, which culminates in performances at Carnegie Hall in New York City.

“One of our tenets is discovery,” said Clark Morris, executive and artistic director for the Harriman-Jewell Series. “We see that as both our role and our desire, to . . . bring new artistic moments to Kansas City.”

The São Paulo orchestra is led by world-renowned conductor Marin Alsop, making her Helzberg Hall debut (she guest conducted the Kansas City Symphony about 20 years ago, in the old Lyric Theater).

But Alsop is a woman of many firsts: the first woman to conduct major orchestras in the United States, South America, Austria and Britain.

“I’m not going for the Guinness Book of World Records or anything,” laughed Alsop. “I never set out to be the first in all these countries; it just happened this way.”

Marin Alsop (photo by Grant Leighton)

“I love the Brazilian heart and soul. It doesn’t take itself too seriously, it’s so sincere and authentic. That’s how the people are there, too, and that’s how the orchestra is as well.”

Marin Alsop, Conductor of Honor, Orquestra Sinfônica do Estado de São Paulo

But one more first: This concert will be the first time that Heitor Villa-Lobos’ Concerto for Harmonica and Orchestra will be performed in Kansas City. Harmonica virtuoso José Staneck is the soloist, consequently making his Kansas City debut as well.

“It’s pretty fun,” said Alsop. “I thought, ‘Wouldn’t an audience dig going out to hear a harmonica player for a change?’ You know, something different.”

If a concerto for harmonica seems like a bit of a novelty piece, well, it is. During the 1940s and ’50s, harmonica virtuosi commissioned many concertos, but the instrument never found a permanent place in classical music. Nevertheless, said Alsop, “It is skillfully composed by a very established classical composer, but one who also understands Brazilian popular music.”

“It’s really a little bit like, for Americans, what George Gershwin means to us, that blending of popular and serious music in a very sophisticated way.”

The concert includes movements from “Bachianas Brasileiras nr. 4,” which she said offers “different dimensions” of Villa-Lobos, as well as Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov’s shimmering “Scheherazade,” a piece Alsop adores and programs with frequency. She analyzed the work for NPR in 2007. “My goal is to reflect Scheherazade’s own storytelling: to capture the imagination and leave the listener in a constant state of disequilibrium.”

Working in Brazil changed her perspective of Villa-Lobos’ music, along with other Brazilian composers. “It was like going to another planet and discovering a whole new treasure trove of music.”

“I love the Brazilian heart and soul. It doesn’t take itself too seriously, it’s so sincere and authentic. That’s how the people are there, too, and that’s how the orchestra is as well,” she said.

Alsop first conducted OSESP in 2011, then served as music director from 2012 to 2019, commuting between Baltimore and Brazil. She now holds the title of Conductor of Honor, another first. “That sounds very royal to me,” she said. “I’m happy with it.”

In the 2021 documentary “The Conductor,” she related: “My eight years in Brazil were some of the most enjoyable years I’ve spent. I fell in love with the musicians. I fell in love with the potential. And I knew I could bring something to them.”

The documentary, which follows Alsop’s life and career, is a must-see for fans of symphonic music and reflects both her passion-driven journey to be a conductor of excellence and the challenges she faced as a woman in a gender-biased, patriarchal system.

OSESP was founded in 1953. They perform in a beautifully converted train station in one of the largest cities in the world. “It has really grown, and part of that growth has been having conductors of international importance,” said Morris. In 2012, Alsop took the São Paulo orchestra to the BBC Proms, the festival’s first-ever performance by a Brazilian orchestra — the Proms started in 1895.

Alsop has often been called “transformative,” but to her it’s not just about coming in and making changes. “It’s my job to build on the strengths and also try to identify areas that need work and try to build stronger relationships.”

In each of her positions, she’s not only engaged with the musicians, but worked with the community, connected with audiences, and enhanced reputations. And once she’s developed these relationships, she works to maintain them. She still has relationships with just about every orchestral appointment she’s ever had, a rarity in the conducting world: She’s conductor laureate for the Colorado Symphony, conductor emeritus with the Bournemouth (England) Symphony Orchestra, and music director laureate with the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, where she served for 14 years.

Through her many appointments and worldwide conducting schedule — she’s just completed her third season as chief conductor of the ORF Vienna Radio Symphony Orchestra and first season as chief conductor and curator of the Ravinia Festival, in Illinois — she’s also found time to teach and inspire the next generation of conductors. (Kansas City Symphony’s new associate conductor, Gonzalo Farias, studied with her in Baltimore.)

This past summer, she launched “Breaking Barriers: Women on the Podium” at Ravinia and celebrated the 20th anniversary of the Taki Concordia Conducting Fellowship (renamed Taki Alsop Conducting Fellowship), founded to train and celebrate fellow women conductors.

“I feel like I’ve planted these seeds for people, and I try to be as helpful as I can, so it doesn’t feel like I’m alone. I have a whole garden of people who are out there, trying to change the landscape,” she said.

“She became an important conductor at a time when that’s not what women did,” said Morris. “I think it’s important that we see artists who have accomplished so much, like Marin, on the Kansas City stage.”

As Conductor of Honor, she works on special projects with OSESP. In 2019, they presented a Global Ode to Joy, honoring Ludwig van Beethoven’s 250th anniversary. In this tour, they celebrate Brazilian music. Both Alsop and the musicians are excited for this opportunity to perform in the United States and share this aspect of their heritage.

It’s an “irresistible” concert, said Morris. “There are so many intriguing and interesting aspects to this performance.”

Harriman-Jewell Series presents Orquestra Sinfônica do Estado de São Paulo with Marin Alsop, at 7 p.m. Oct. 10 at the Kauffman Center. For tickets, www.hjseries.org.

Libby Hanssen

Libby Hanssen covers the performing arts in Kansas City. She maintains the culture blog, “Proust Eats a Sandwich,” and writes poetry and children’s books. She holds a master’s degree in trombone performance from UMKC Conservatory and currently works at UMKC’s Music/Media Library.

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