Andre Previn's three short visits this season to the podium he now calls home--the podium of the Los Angeles Philharmonic--can be viewed as brief and frustrating glimpses of an intriguing music director, or as promises on the future.
The performance heard Thursday night in the Pavilion of the Music Center was both frustrating and promising--but never dull.
Returning to the Philharmonic for just two weeks this visit (his final drop-in of the season proper will comprise another fortnight's concerts in March), Previn gave a provocative, down-payment performance in a certainly undeveloped area of the orchestra's repertory--the works of Haydn. Then he partnered pianist Andre Watts in the first of two installments in a mini-survey of four concerted works of Liszt. Finally, he led a rousing and detailed reading of Bartok's suite from "A csodalatos mandarin."
In the Bartok work--and it only makes sense to use the translation ("The Wonderful Mandarin") of the title favored by the leading Bartok scholar and biographer, Halsey Stevens--Previn seemed to elicit from the players of the Philharmonic most of the colors, timbres and characterful nuances the work abounds in.
Here consistently, as he had much less consistently in Haydn's Symphony No. 92, the 56-year-old conductor presided over a balanced, clarified and articulate performance, one that moved logically from inception to climax.
Previn displayed similar achievement in supporting Andre Watts' cool-headed but masterful readings of Liszt's E-flat Concerto and "Totentanz." The 39-year-old American pianist remains a virtuoso of qualities that defy categorization. In those areas of the repertory where he excels, he can produce seraphic performances. On the other hand, his playing can be willful, eccentric and unstylish.
Happily for us, in these first two weeks of January, Watts' specialization in Liszt is unassailable. His re-creations of the First Concerto (the vehicle of his major debut, 23 years ago) and the much-maligned, still-lovable "Totentanz" on Thursday showed the depth of that specialization.
All the Lisztian requirements of technique, speed and strength, Watts meets and surpasses. More important, he causes the songful elements to dominate and inform all those thousands of notes.
Best of all, he allows not a single harsh tone intrude upon or impede even into most complex and dense of passages. Liszt's music emerges as music first and as bravura display second. For Watts' next installment, next week, when he plays "Malediction" and the A-major concerto, no seat in the Pavilion should be empty.
What was frustrating at the Thursday performance was the incompletely polished condition of Haydn's "Oxford" Symphony. Here, instrumental balances remained askew, inner voices fought for their freedom, attacks proved ragged.
Still, the conductor's incontrovertible projection of Haydnesque continuity, plus his obvious affection for every musical statement and the (reduced) orchestra's good cheer, came close to carrying the performance. The promise is clear.