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The Sorrows Of Ever-Young André

New York
Isaac Stern Auditorium, Carnegie Hall
04/07/2009 -  
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart: Piano Concerto No. 24 in C Minor, K. 491
Richard Strauss: Symphonia Domestica, Op. 53

The Philadelphia Orchestra, André Previn (Conductor and pianist)

André Previn (© Lilian Birnbaum/DG)

One must lament that in the 90-odd minutes of the first of many concerts devoted to and played by Andre Previn this month, only two of his talents were on evidence. He conducted and he played the piano. Oh, and he also wrote the cadenza which Mozart didn’t write for the C Minor Concerto.

But like the ocean, André Previn’s resources over the past 70 years or so have seemed limitless. He is a great (not poetaster) jazz pianist. He is a fine composer, of operas, concertos and chamber music. He was one of the best music arrangers who ever graced the Hollywood sound stage, and composed his share of brilliant scores as well. (Think of Bad Day At Black Rock, Elmer Gantry and the arrangements of Porgy and Bess and Irma La Douce, amongst several dozen more). He has had his share of glamorous orchestras as musical director, glamorous marriages, and glamorous commissions from the likes of Renée Fleming, Barbara Bonney, Yo-Yo Ma, Vladimir Ashkenazy and Janet Baker.

When I met him in Hong Kong a dozen years ago, he was loved by his players, and he looked like he loved every moment of life. When he appeared last night, he did show his eight decades—the body movements were slow, and he had to be helped to sit on the dais, where he conducted. But the musical flair has never left him, and he offered a good, if all too short concert.

Typically, Mr. Previn needed to show his double talents, by performing and conducting the great Mozart K. 491. The Philadelphia Orchestra was cut into a classical-sized orchestra, and Mr. Previn, back to the audience, seated at the piano, led the orchestra at every opportunity. Did the orchestra need a leader for that long ritornello introduction? Mr. Previn led with all the aplomb with the tragic notes need. Was the right hand playing solo for a measure? Up came the left to cue in the players. Did that sublime opening of the finale need special treatment? Mr. Previn was the man to grant it.

To be honest, such legerdemain didn’t always work. The variety of the first movement is so great that it needs a full-time conductor to bring out the diversity, so the Philadelphia Orchestra played without much punch. Mr. Previn of course played the dazzling keyboard runs with an elegant simplicity, but such elegance doesn’t always contain the underlying emotion of the movement.

Why Mozart never wrote down the cadenza for such a lovely piece will never be known, but Mr. Previn wrote his own, which actually had more solo excitement than the other playing. It might have edged into some Late Romantic notions (notably Brahms), but was a very colorful addition.

The second movement’s challenge was simplicity, and for that both soloist and orchestra blended in well, with some beautiful wind solos. The ending cannot fail—Beethoven once told another composer, “We’ll never get an idea like this”—and both Mr. Previn and the Philadelphia Orchestra had a modest triumph.

Such a triumph was perhaps impossible with Richard Strauss’s Domestic Symphony. His other tone poems invariably had heroes, villains, clown, and death. The Domestic Symphony is 45 minutes with a fantastically heroic main motif (which could have been substituted in Heldenleben or Don Juan), but lots of filling in between.

Probably the composer, who bragged that he could musically separate a soup-spoon from a teaspoon, had detailed program notes, but without them, one could only guess at what the music was trying to produce.

I was able to conceive from his music the following actions: a) Mother cooking spaetzle, b) running when hearing Baby cry, c), thus accidentally burning the spaetzle, d) cursing; e) a newspaper being read, each page turned over, f) the paper being rolled into a ball and g) thrown into the wastebasket; h) the baby drooling, i) the Hero cutting first a chunk of Gorgonzola cheese (two oboes) and j) angrily chopping a chunk of Liederkranz cheese (one bass clarinet counterpointed with the violas), k) an alarm clock going off at the wrong time, with the Hero drowsily slamming it off, l) the postman coming to the door with the usual bills and junk mail, m) the Hero pouring himself a Schnaps which he downs in one gulp finishing with a chomp of apple, and n) the Hero brushing his teeth and o) gargling.

But one must have a sensitive ear to discover these images in such a dreary mess.

Mr. Previn, to his credit, conducted with all the skill he needed, and by the time of the long long long finale, the trombones and horns gave the illusion that the whole piece was a lot better than it sounded.

Harry Rolnick



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