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Previn & The Philharmonic : Week 2: Ragged Mozart, But Brilliant Britten

October 19, 1985|MARTIN BERNHEIMER | Times Music Critic

The flowers on the stage of the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion are gone. So are the TV cameras. Nobody hands out free wine on the plaza. The fanfares have stopped. The sky above the Music Center is bereft of fireworks. The audience comes in mufti.

This is week No. 2 of the Andre Previn era. Time to get down to business. No more Philharmonic Phuss.

It would, no doubt, have been tempting for our new maestro to schedule some nice easy pieces while we collected our collective breath. But easy doesn't seem to be Previn's favorite word.

Thursday night, he devoted the first half of his program to Mozart's G-major Piano Concerto, K. 453, casting himself--dangerously--as both soloist and conductor. After intermission, he turned to the sprawling yet spartan rhetoric of Benjamin Britten's "Spring Symphony" of 1949, in its ridiculously overdue Philharmonic premiere.

There were problems. In the Mozart, which the audience loved, the problems related to ragged music-making. In the Britten, which was brilliantly performed, the problems related to a shocking number of non-listeners who chose to flee between movements. Sophistication is a sometime thing in the city of angels.

FOR THE RECORD - IMPERFECTIONS
Los Angeles Times Sunday October 27, 1985 Home Edition Calendar Page 95 Calendar Desk 2 inches; 38 words Type of Material: Correction
Tenor Michael Sells of USC points out that the first local performance of Benjamin Britten's "Spring Symphony" was in 1973 by the USC Symphony, not in 1978 by the Pasadena Symphony, as Martin Bernheimer wrote on Oct. 19. Daniel Lewis was the conductor both times.

With time, Previn may be able to bring off double-duty Mozart with vigor and finesse. He is, after all, a sensitive, facile pianist and a conductor with a sure technique.

At this early stage in his relationship with the orchestra, unfortunately, very little can be taken for granted. The players don't know him well enough to reflect his interpretive wishes on faith, and he doesn't know the ensemble well enough to control it effectively with one hand, much less the blink of an eye or a bob of the head.

Our Philharmonic still demands a conductor's full attention when it comes to the niceties of Mozart. Moreover, no soloist should have to worry about accurate, nuanced orchestral support while attending to the complex keyboard flourishes.

The performance on this occasion did reveal some promising moments of lyrical charm. Much of the time, however, it remained bumpy, mechanical, prosaic.

Ironically, one could savor remarkable suavity, impetuosity and, yes, poetry in the Britten. Here, Previn was able to sustain the wonted clarity and tension, not to mention subtle drama.

He provided appreciative accompaniment for the limpid soprano of Sheila Armstrong, the lush contralto of Christine Cairns (who replaced Ann Murray) and the stylish tenor of Robert Tear.

He also elicited masterful singing from Roger Wagner's Los Angeles Master Chorale (prepared, for some reason, by Robert Porco of Indiana University) and from John R. Barron's Pasadena Boys Choir. The Philharmonic--seated in a new, acoustically advantageous formation--played for him with chamber-music finesse.

Britten's sometimes bleak, occasionally rapturous, always clever ode to spring and its symbolic impact on the universe isn't really a symphony at all. It is a suite of songs set to 14 texts by great British poets, ancient and modern. The orchestra--complete with cow horn--provides modest and moody punctuation.

Although Serge Koussevitzky commissioned the work for Tanglewood 36 years ago, the honor of the world premiere fell to Eduard van Beinum and the Amsterdam Concertgebouw. Had fate allowed Van Beinum to pursue his Los Angeles career, the Philharmonic might have ventured the "Spring Symphony" decades ago. According to available records, however, the first local performance came courtesy of Daniel Lewis and the Pasadena Symphony in 1978.

Britten covers a great deal of territory in 50 episodic minutes. He provides no cumulative development in the conventional sense, but he does explore his subject with unflagging sensitivity to word and wit.

His rhetoric is restrained, polite in the best British tradition. Still, Britten delights in the piquant juxtaposition of the archaic and the contemporary. He creates bold sonic images that embrace at once the innocent joys of madrigal ritual and the abiding agonies of World War II introspection.

The "Spring Symphony" fuses apostrophes to nature by Spenser and Milton with the chirping of birds and the whistling of boys. Dark allusions to the devastation of Poland by W. H. Auden coexist here with specific May Day celebrations and ethereal echoes of "Sumer is icumen in." Britten integrates the disparate elements with uncanny elegance and ultimate eloquence.

He also demands a certain degree of empathy and concentration of his audience. Many of the impatient first-nighters, who seem to distrust anything that isn't instantly hummable, refused to expend the necessary effort.

This week's mutineers will, no doubt, be happier next week. Then Previn will show us how he deals with slush-pump romanticism. Ah, the Tchaikovsky Fourth.

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