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Austin Symphony’s Previn and Elgar Program Hits a High Note

Austin Symphony’s Previn and Elgar Program Hits a High Note

Composer André Previn 's
Composer André Previn ‘s latest “Double Concerto” was commissioned by no fewer than eight orchestras

Dvorak: Czech Suite Op. 39
Previn: Double Concerto for Violin, Cello and Orchestra
Elgar: Enigma Variations Op. 36.
Jaime Laredo (violin) and Sharon Robinson (cello)
Austin Symphony Orchestra/Peter Bay
Long Center, Austin, Texas Saturday, April 13, 2015

At the age of 86, André Previn can look back on a multi-faceted career as a composer, pianist, conductor and author. He excelled in all fields and in many ways his career has run parallel to that of another great American musician, Leonard Bernstein. Like Bernstein, Previn has always had a strong interest in jazz and a flair for talking about music; with a remarkable list of musical accomplishments to his credit to date, he is not done yet. Last week in Austin we heard the first local performance of a new work by Previn for violin, cello and orchestra. While he has all but given up conducting, like Schütz, Verdi, Richard Strauss and Carter at similar ages, Previn’s head is still full of musical ideas and he is setting them down on paper.

North American Performances to be followed by Two in Europe (2016)

For the sake of clarity, I would point out that this is Previn’s third double concerto. He wrote one for violin, double bass and orchestra in 2007 and another for violin, viola and orchestra in 2009. This latest one was commissioned by no fewer than eight orchestras: the Cincinnati Symphony gave the first performance of the work last November; the Kansas City Symphony presented it in January 2015; the Austin Symphony gave the Texas premiere; the Detroit Symphony will perform the work April 24-26, and the Pacific Symphony will present it in May; the Toronto Symphony will give the Canadian premiere of the work June 4-7, followed by performances in Europe by the Swedish Chamber Orchestra (March, 2016) and the Deutsche Kammerphilharmonie Bremen (March, 2016).

Jaime Laredo (violin) and Sharon Robinson (cello)
Jaime Laredo (violin) and Sharon Robinson (cello)

Jaime Laredo and his wife Sharon Robinson were the composer’s chosen soloists and they will be featured in all the performances listed above. Distinguished musicians, perhaps best known for their chamber music activities, at the ages of 74 and 65 respectively, each still boasts excellent technique and makes a beautiful sound.

Mary Ellyn Hutton, reviewing one of the Cincinnati performances for Classical Voice NorthAmerica  described Previn’s new double concerto as “a sunny and engaging composition,” and I am inclined to agree. The most famous work for violin and cello is Brahms’ A minor concerto, a much weightier and ‘Germanic’ piece. Previn’s concerto, by contrast, is genial and ‘Viennese’, reminding me of certain pages of Richard Strauss – “Der Rosenkavalier,” perhaps, and possibly “Capriccio” (given the addition of a harp in the slow movement) – and Korngold. As it happens, Previn and Korngold both devoted large chunks of their careers writing film music for Hollywood, and they both seem to have a certain Viennese gemütlichkeit in their genes; although born in Berlin, I suspect Previn’s heart belonged to Vienna. Over the years he developed a very close relationship with the Vienna Philharmonic and they made many recordings together.

In the last movement of this new double concerto, we hear flashes of the swaggering brilliance so typical of Korngold in his Violin Concerto, and in some of his film scores (e.g. “The Sea Hawk”). It cannot be coincidental either that Previn has recorded a good deal of Korngold’s film music with the London Symphony (DG 471 3472).

On the whole, while this double concerto is an entertaining piece, one is compelled to ask why the soloists have so little to do, especially in the last movement, where they are more often spectators than participants.

Humor in Elgar’s “Enigma Variations”? 

It is impossible to know what history will say about Previn’s new double concerto, but there is no doubt whatsoever that “Enigma Variations,” which has become one of the few Elgar works to be appreciated not only in the UK but around the world, is a masterpiece.

The variations in this piece are intended to be portraits of the composer, his wife, and his friends. Elgar himself wrote some notes on each of the variations to accompany the production of the pianola rolls. These notes are gathered together with photographs of each of the friends and a facsimile of the composer’s autograph score of the first page of each of the variations, in a publication titled “My Friends Pictured Within” (1947, Novello).

The notes in this publication reveal that, more often than not, Elgar was poking fun at his friends; for example, in the seventh variation Elgar is teasing his friend Troyte Griffith. This is the variation that features a raucous and exciting timpani solo. In Elgar’s words “the uncouth rhythm of the drums and lower strings was really suggested by some maladroit essays to play the pianoforte; later the strong rhythm suggests the attempts of the instructor [Elgar himself, no less] to make something like order out of chaos, and the final despairing ‘slam’ records that the effort proved to be in vain.”

In other words, Elgar did have a highly developed sense of humor, and I couldn’t disagree more with Stephen Aechternacht, who writes in his Austin Symphony program notes of Elgar, that: “His life was one of Edwardian frustration: he longed to exceed the boundaries of his ancestors, but ultimately, his inhibitions prevailed, and his output displays a restrained nobility and stiff-chinned resolve.”

Maestro Peter Bay
Maestro Peter Bay

There is certainly nothing “restrained” about the nobility of the First Symphony nor “stiff-chinned” about the passion of his oratorio “The Dream of Gerontius” or the Cello Concerto, and the “Enigma Variations” is a treasure-trove of knee-slapping fall off your chair humor as well as some of the most profoundly moving music ever written by an English composer.

Peter Bay and the Austin Symphony gave the work a well-prepared and totally committed performance. Bay knew exactly what he wanted and what he wanted got right to the heart of the matter. Tempi seemed just right and each of the fourteen variations was vividly characterized. Each member of the orchestra seemed to totally believe in the music and gave of his or her best. Solos by violist Bruce Williams, cellist Douglas Harvey and clarinetist Stephen Girko were wondrously eloquent, and timpanist Tony Edwards played his afore-mentioned solo with glorious abandon.

For Something More…

André Previn has always known one of the secrets of great public speakers and great leaders: the way to get the attention of a large crowd is not by shouting, but by speaking softly. Previn has always been a soft-spoken man and audiences invariably fell silent and leaned forward in their chairs when he spoke, straining to hear what he had to say. As a jazz pianist, he was the same. He preferred to work with small groups, and more often than not he occupied himself with exploring the quieter end of the sonic spectrum. While Art Tatum and Oscar Peterson dazzled listeners with explosive feats of virtuosity, Previn ruminated, uncovering poetry in soft, ever-changing harmonies; as in, for example “Andre Previn Plays Songs “by Vernon Duke (1958, Contemporary S7558),

Previn wrote the scores for such memorable films as “Bad Day at Black Rock,” “Elmer Gantry,”” Two for the Seesaw,” and “Inside Daisy Clover.” He always had a wry sense of humor and put it to work in the best book ever written about the life of a Hollywood film composer – “No Minor Chords” (1991, Doubleday).

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Austin Symphony’s Previn and Elgar Program Hits a High Note


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