A Brief Encounter: My Night at Sala São Paulo

front of the Sala São Paulo concert hall at night
Sala São Paulo, photo courtesy of Tuca Vieira/Fundação Osesp

Stepping out of the taxi and onto the platform that led into Sala São Paulo, the city’s musical landmark, I caught my breath. Struck by its architectural ancestry looming against the dark sky, I leaned back to glance at the intricacies of its stained glass windows and wrought-iron gates. Initially built as a transportation hub for the region’s coffee industry, which laid the foundation for the state’s wealth, the Júlio Prestes railway station eventually became the home of Latin America’s best concert hall. Inaugurated in 1999 and winning the prestigious prize of honor from the United States Institute for Theatre Technology shortly thereafter in 2000, Sala São Paulo continues to welcome the best composers, performers, and musical talent from all over the world.

Greeted by a series of statues lining the entrance to the concert hall, I marveled at the magnificent ceiling after acknowledging the presence of the goddess of architecture beside me. Noticing the details of coffee pods chiseled into the colossal columns, I couldn’t help but wonder if Chief Architect Nelson Dupré had given a small offering to this important goddess. What I did know for sure after reading his 2018 interview in Móbile magazine, is that Dupre’s educational path drew him away from engineering and into the world of architecture. Dupré’s intense dedication to his studies, teaching and studying throughout the week and on the weekends, combined with the help of his in-laws, enabled him to eventually complete his degree and become an architect. Luckily for local audiences, Dupré’s offering to the goddess of architecture is here on display at Sala São Paulo. In fact, the renowned architect proudly affirmed that Sala São Paulo was his favorite project, which speaks volumes given his illustrious career. Dupré has also won awards for his work at the Biological Museum of the Butantan Institute and the Theatro Municipal, and this Sala São Paulo restoration project was the glorious result of Dupré’s meticulous research of stages around the world, where he learned the details of “acoustic systems, access and flow.”

Watching concertgoers flow into this remarkable work of restoration, I read through the program notes on tonight’s performance of Rachmaninov’s Piano Concerto No. 2 in C Minor, op. 18. Humming a muffled interpretation of one of the Russian composer’s most celebrated works, I walked over to the towering windows to watch a train leave the station. This concert hall setting was reminiscent of the iconic railway scene in the 1945 film Brief Encounter, where two lovers say their strained goodbyes at a bustling train station. The palatable frustration of their affair’s dissolution is drawn out by each note of Rachmaninov’s masterpiece playing in the background, like a third character eavesdropping on the tormented twosome from the far end of the platform. Based on the 1936 one-act play, “Still Life,” by English playwright Sir Noël Peirce Coward, Brief Encounter has forever connected the composer’s concerto with the yearning and desire that sometimes comes with a chance connection.

Was it by chance that tonight’s performance of Rachmaninov’s Piano Concerto was being performed by another celebrated British artist? Perhaps. Whatever way the winds of fate were blowing, I was fortunate enough to attend this performance by Sir Stephen Hough. Having done my homework before the show, I read quite a bit about Sir Stephen Hough’s accomplishments and talents, of which there are many. His impressive list includes several Grammy nominations, eight Gramophone Magazine Awards, including “Record of the Year” in 1996 and 2003, as well as the Gramophone “Gold Disc” Award in 2008, which named his complete Saint-Saëns Piano Concertos as the best recording of the past 30 years. If those accomplishments weren’t enough, Hyperion, the independent British classical label, lists his 2005 live recording of the Rachmaninoff Piano Concertos as the fastest-selling recording in the label’s history.

press photo of Stephen Hough Jiyang Chen
Sir Stephen Hough, photo courtesy of Jiyang Chen/Fundação Osesp

Wow! Evidence of Sir Stephen Hough’s endowments doesn’t end there. He is also named on The Economist’s elite list of living polymaths, with his writing talent as a poet and author complementing his musical genius. Hough’s artistry was available for purchase at Sala São Paulo’s gift shop, where I wandered prior to his highly anticipated performance. Meandering through the store, I saw a wide array of CDs, books, and jewelry tucked behind one of three cafes where patrons can grab a coffee before the show, or where I enjoyed a scrumptious piece of pear, cardamom, and pecan pie. Glancing over at the bookshelves, I noticed the cover of Anna Karenina, another fated tale of a brief encounter in a train station. Chance meetings at railway stations, whether in St. Petersburg, Russia, or Lancashire, England, seem to be rife with love and loss. 

Love and loss; a common theme for artists, writers, and composers like Hough. While perusing his website, I scrolled through the page listing his compositions and clicked on the link for Songs of Love and Loss, for High Voice and Piano. My sentimental spirit was drawn to its relatable title and I noticed that Hough had composed this piece inspired by William Butler Yeats’s poem “O Do Not Love Too Long.” While I can’t read sheet music, I can definitely read poetry and so I fell down the rabbit hole into Yeats’s lyrical universe, wondering why Hough had chosen this particular poem to inspire his aptly named composition. 

Program notes featuring Stephen Hough at the symphony in Brazil

Landing deep down the path of Yeats’s life and his poetry, I learned that the Irish poet co-founded the Rhymers’ Club at the end of the 19th century. This group of London poets met to discuss their writing and “placed a very high value on subjectivity and craftsmanship and preferred sophisticated aestheticism to nationalism.” An amateur poet myself, I appreciated Yeats’s declaration to fellow Rhymers that a poet should diligently draft each word with particular reverence to “rhythm and cadence…form and style.” Laboring over just the right adjective for my three-line sijo poems finally felt like a passionate pursuit worthy of Yeats’s approval. 

Reading more about the poet’s knowledge of occultism, magic, and Irish folklore, and how it influenced his artistic themes, I became intrigued by Yeats’s integration of nature throughout his masterful canon of work. Another leap down the rabbit hole led me to the poet’s notes on his poem, “The Unappeasable Host,” where he mentions his use of the wind as a “symbol of vague desires and hopes.” Alluding to the Sidhe fairy folk and their legendary status in Irish mythology, Yeats often weaves the theme of wind and its wondrous, enchanting spirit throughout much of his work. His self-analysis reminded me of the power of poetry, and its connection to our emotions, our relationship to nature, and the fragility of our humanness. The poet’s reflection reveals that this eternal struggle with unrealized desires can turn one into a “hater of the wind” – a hater of what is beyond our control. Ultimately, you cannot control fate, or those brief encounters that stay lodged in your soul echoing like the soft vibration of a piano note. You hear it over and over, relive it in your memory, and cling to it like the train ticket reminding you of your lover’s last glance. 

Conductor Thierry Fischer at Sala Sao Paulo
Thierry Fischer, Music Director for São Paulo Symphony, photo courtesy of Beatriz de Paula/Fundação Osesp

What I would be clinging to was every note of Thierry Fischer conducting the São Paulo Symphony Orchestra in this acoustic gem. Thierry Fischer, Principal Conductor and Music Director of the São Paulo Symphony Orchestra since 2020, illustrates his mastery to the delight of local audiences through highlights like his Strauss series, as well as a Sibelius cycle, of which I’d be listening to in amazement that evening. Fischer has been amazing audiences around the world for many years, including his recent interpretation of Dvořák’s Symphony No. 9 in E minor, op. 95 in partnership with Brass for Africa and the Symphony Orchestra of Castilla y León. In 2012, Fischer won the International Classical Music Award for his Hyperion recording of Frank Martin’s Der Sturm with the Netherlands Radio Philharmonic Orchestra and Chorus. Looking at the long list of recordings on Fischer’s website, I added a few to my musical wishlist noting his 1989 recording of Mozart’s Flute Concerto and Bassoon Concerto, where Fischer directed the Chamber Orchestra of Europe. Reading more about Fischer’s career, I learned that he had his conducting debut while filling in for an ailing colleague, and that he started as a Principal Flutist in Hamburg and at the Zurich Opera. His musical genesis made me curious about his connection to the woodwinds, and his choice for Sibelius’ Symphony no. 4 in A Minor, the somber, psychological opener this evening. I was regretful that I hadn’t arrived in Brazil in time to see the accomplished conductor shepherd audiences through Berlioz’s La damnation de Faust.

Here in his temporary Brazilian home, Fischer is guiding the award-winning São Paulo Symphony Orchestra, affectionately known by the acronym Osesp, to new heights. Since its first concert in 1954, Osesp has been making history within Brazil and abroad. Named in 2008 by Gramophone magazine as one of the three emerging orchestras in the world, Osesp completed a European tour in 2013 that included stops in Paris, London, and Berlin, followed by a 2014 tour of five Brazilian capital cities to celebrate its 60th anniversary. In 2019, Osesp toured China and Hong Kong, being the first professional orchestra of Latin America to perform concerts in these countries, and premiered All Together: A Global Ode to Joy, a project of Carnegie Hall, with Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony sung in Portuguese. If you find yourself in São Paulo during July, make it a point to visit nearby Campos do Jordão, where Osesp hosts a brilliant lineup featuring the best of Brazil, including the Philharmonic Orchestra of Minas Gerais. Rounding out a full performance calendar, the Osesp Foundation and the Osesp Academy, together with esteemed musicians, local teachers, and dedicated volunteers, provide musical training to young singers, instrumentalists, and future conductors. These masterclasses bring the best talent from around the globe to train the next generation of Brazilian musical masters. 

This evening’s maestro would be Thierry Fischer, taking us on a journey inside Rachmaninov’s 2nd piano concerto, the work that signaled to the world that the composer had come out of his depressive state. This masterpiece is dedicated to his therapist, Dr. Nikolai Dahl, who some credit with Rachmaninov’s return due to a series of hypnotherapy sessions. Speculation surrounds these curative consultations that took place in 1900 after the composer stopped writing music due to the disastrous reaction to his first symphony in 1897. Was Rachmaninov’s recovery as simple as a snap of the hypnotist’s fingers similar to the opening scene of Andrei Tarkovsky’s 1975 movie, The Mirror? A strange scene that introduces this cinematic autobiography of a middle-aged poet is not unlike the mystery surrounding Rachmaninov’s ailment. Rachmaninov’s recitation and repetition of Dahl’s words like “The Concerto will be of excellent quality” suggest that maybe the Russian composer cured his writer’s block simply by summoning it into existence. While historians debate over the precise prognosis and treatment terminology, one thing is for certain, this concerto is definitely of excellent quality.

An excellent composition being played in a venue of excellent sound quality – what a dream! A hallmark of Sala São Paulo is the movable ceiling, a design feat by acoustics consultant José Augusto Nepomuceno. Although not visible to audiences below, it is certainly heard. Nepomuceno’s impeccable integration of its preexisting architecture and consideration of endless details down to the precise placement of each chair has made Sala São Paulo an acoustic gem. The building itself is an orchestra working together to lift the composer’s notes to set sail on the wind to our ears, and into our skin.

Hesitant to let out a sigh so as not to interrupt the magic coming off of the keys, I felt each note land on my skin. Rachmaninov’s piece was perfect with the push and pull of the piano and the woodwinds yearning for each other. Tenderness from the flute and the clarinet, each drawing out desire and the depth of emotion held in a single note, a single glance. Life is still without the wind, without our soul, without that craving for connection. Hypnotized by the music, I watched Fischer command the sails, carrying our souls on a journey of memories of loves lost, reminding us that sometimes it is good not to love too long.

Thank you to the following sources:

4 thoughts on “A Brief Encounter: My Night at Sala São Paulo

  1. Excellent!. Beautiful images of a gorgeous music hall. I felt as though I was there in the audience. So much interesting information to absorb and appreciate. Thank you for a wonderful trip to Sala Sao Paulo. Very enjoyable.

  2. Absolutely stunning! I wish more people can find hidden cultural gems and heritage in South America, specially in the huge city of Sao Paulo

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