By Mary Ellyn Hutton
CINCINNATI — Composer-pianist-conductor André Previn was in good company at Music Hall on Nov. 21 and 22. Mozart, to be exact — the Symphonies Nos. 34 and 41 — with whom Previn shared the program for the world premiere of his Double Concerto for Violin and Cello.
Commissioned by the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra, Cincinnati’s Linton Chamber Music Series (with lead funding by local philanthropists Ann and Harry Santen), and a consortium of seven other orchestras, the work was written for and performed by violinist Jaime Laredo and cellist Sharon Robinson. The CSO was led by music director Louis Langrée. (Laredo and Robinson are co-artistic directors of the Linton Series.)
It was a festive evening, combining a boffo performance of the concerto with a heartwarming welcome for the 85-year-old Oscar-winning, Grammy-winning composer, who is also an honorary Knight Commander of the Order of the British Empire. Symbolizing that welcome was Langrée’s dramatic gesture at the concerto’s conclusion, when he leaped down from the stage to present a bouquet of flowers to Previn, who was seated in the audience. It was well deserved: This is a work with legs, and with advocates like Laredo and Robinson, it will most likely enter the double-concerto repertoire quickly. There are performances to follow in 2015-16 as follows:
- Kansas City Symphony: Michael Stern conducting, Jan. 16-18, 2015
- Austin Symphony: Peter Bay, April 20-11, 2015
- Detroit Symphony: Leonard Slatkin, April 24-26, 2015
- Pacific Symphony: Carl St. Clair, May 28-30, 2015
- Toronto Symphony: Peter Oundjian (Canadian Premiere), June 4-7, 2015
- Swedish Chamber Orchestra: John Storgaards (European Premiere) March 5, 2016
- Deutsche Kammerphilharmonie Bremen: Joshua Weilerstein: March 10-11, 2016
What listeners in Cincinnati heard was a sunny and engaging composition, combining deep feeling with Previn’s signature jazzy touch and virtuosic writing for the soloists. Scored for full orchestra and completely tonal (with an emphasis on C major), it clocked in at about 20 minutes.
The first movement has a theatrical aspect to it, with the Quasi Allegretto exposition following a pair of opening cadenzas for cello and violin (compare Brahms’ Double Concerto). One has the feeling that the “stars” have been introduced and are now on stage for the show.
The music that follows is completely outgoing and features brilliant orchestration. This, said Previn, in pre-concert remarks, “is my favorite part,” and it shows in glowing color throughout the work. Cadenzas return to frame the movement, which comes to a sassy end on unison C’s.
The second movement, marked Slow, is the Concerto’s emotional core, Previn investing it with melody and lush textures, including harp. It begins with an extended solo passage for Laredo and Robinson, who aimed straight for the heart, the strings entering muted. There are lovely contributions by the woodwinds and, at one point, a big brass statement, before the soloists bring it to a touching conclusion.
The Presto finale is cheerful and cheeky, sounding Copland-esque at times. Again, it begins with solo violin and cello, and there are six bars of irregular meter before it settles into 6/8 for the tutti entrance. The influence of jazz, which Previn said was unintentional, is nevertheless pervasive, with frequent changes of meter throughout the movement. The orchestra was kept busy interacting with the soloists, who performed with ardor and precision. There is a slowing near the end, which injects a bit of sentiment into the music before it concludes with a big fortissimo chord by soloists and orchestra, again in C major.
Previn took part in several events during his time in Cincinnati (his first visit, he said). He made himself available for interviews, did the Classical Conversation before each concert, and a special interview session on Nov. 22 during an afternoon recital of his music at the University of Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music. The host was Suzanne Bona (of “Sunday Baroque” on National Public Radio).
The session included excerpts from three Previn works: Three Dickinson Songs, performed by soprano Erin Keesey and pianist Matthew Umphreys; The Invisible Drummer, with pianist Corbin Beisner; and Four Songs (after poems by Toni Morrison) with soprano Katherine Jolly, cellist Thomas Guth, and Umphreys. All are students or alumni of the college-conservatory. Bona’s interview was threaded through the recital and included questions from the audience (and well-deserved compliments by Previn to the student performers).
Previn’s insights and comments were numerous and fascinating:
Of his own compositions, he said his favorites include the Violin Concerto No. 1 (written for Anne-Sophie Mutter) and his opera A Streetcar Named Desire. He said that at the time of the 1995 premiere he was “floored” by his own nerve in writing an opera.
Regarding what’s next, Previn said he has begun working with playwright Tom Stoppard on a new opera, The Turn of the Screw, which is the same subject as an opera by Benjamin Britten, based on the novella by Henry James. Previn said there had been tentative discussions about a premiere at the Lyric Opera of Chicago.
“It all begins with Mozart,” he answered, when asked about his favorite composer. “That’s not an opinion. It’s just a fact. He is the beginning and the end, the answer to everything, though Bach is close.” Previn said that he and former wife Mutter used to start every day by playing Bach chorales.
Having composed in all genres of music (film, jazz, opera, classical), does he make any differentiation between them? (He writes “only” classical music now.) “Music is music. It’s either good or bad.”
What is different about his music now? “It’s more controlled technically. I think I’ve learned my craft a lot more.”
His advice to students? “Learn your craft. Inspiration will take care of itself.”
Does he use a computer to compose? “No. I must pick up paper and pencil.”
Why did he become a conductor? “Because I needed the money,” he said. “It’s also the best repertoire for one instrument [the orchestra].”
How does he define leadership as a conductor (Previn has been music director or principal conductor of the London, Houston and Pittsburgh symphonies, the Royal Philharmonic, and the Los Angeles Philharmonic)? “When the orchestra does exactly what you want. The trick is not to make them play, but to make them want to. You can hear the difference.”
Previn declined to comment specifically on his Double Concerto. “It’s too recent,” he said.
Mary Ellyn Hutton is a free-lance music writer living in Cincinnati, Ohio. She wrote for the Cincinnati Post until it closed in 2007 and now maintains a web site at www.musicincincinnati.com.