Previn and Dohn'anyi: conductors making their mark

When a new music director is appointed to one of America's major orchestras, the question immediately arises as to what effect -- for better or for worse -- he or she will have on the ensemble. Curiously, since Andr'e Previn became music director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic last fall, more has been made of his return to the town of his first successes (as a jazz pianist and movie composer) than of his potential impact on the orchestra. And yet, in Cleveland, the concern was whether or not Christoph von Dohn'anyi was really worthy of that city's august orchestra.

Both ensembles were in New York this past week, affording an interesting study in contrasts. On the one hand, the Los Angeles Philharmonic is still getting to know its brand new conductor; on the other hand, Dohn'anyi and the Cleveland are sounding increasingly comfortable with each other, after two seasons of partnership. This translated into the Los Angeles orchestra being very much on its toes for its two programs, and the Cleveland ensemble relaxing a bit too much in its last of three programs.

That relaxing came in a surprisingly inert reading of Bart'ok's ``Music for Strings, Percussion, and Celesta.'' This dark, brooding piece needs hair-trigger precision of execution, which it did not get, and needs a conductor willing to explore the dark side of the score with intensity. Maestro Dohn'anyi tended to underplay the dark side, and rhythmically, it was not particularly well executed by the orchestra.

This was particularly surprising, given that a few nights earlier, the Cleveland had performed a Mahler ``Des Knaben Wunderhorn'' of great beauty and sensitivity. This string of orchestrated songs is neither as grandiose nor as volatile as the composer's symphonies, and requires unusual sensitivity on the part of orchestra and conductor to let the sound paintings spin and sustain their moods.

Orchestrally, the performance was magnificent. The ability of the Cleveland players to listen and respond to each other makes them one of the marvels of the music scene today. And when they had to support mezzo Florence Quivar, whose voice has an unusually beguiling luster in the lower registers, Mahlerian magic was made. But when baritone John Shirley-Quirk was singing, the match was not so interesting, for Mr. Shirley-Quirk's throaty, constricted tones hardly fleshed out the Mahler sufficiently.

The strength of the first-chair players was consistently impressive in the two programs. And it was showcased when Franklin Cohen, the first clarinetist, performed Debussy's ``First Rhapsody for Clarinet and Orchestra'' with dazzling virtuosity and a puckish style. And the sparkle of Mendelssohn's ``Italian Symphony'' was bracing and beguiling. In performances such as these, the Cleveland under Dohn'anyi is unique.

The L.A. Philharmonic has a good way to go before it can be talked about in terms of uniqueness. Nevertheless, the two concerts heard in New York indicate that, even in this one short year, Previn is smoothing out the ensemble. He is clearly stressing the sort of collective musicianship that great orchestras must exhibit if they are to be considered front-rank.

In something like Elgar's ``Enigma Variations,'' the orchestra now brings a fervor to its playing, as well as a tonal allure not usually associated with it. Previn not only understands the style of British music, he feels it and projects that feeling to his players. Prokofiev's Fifth Symphony has long been a Previn showcase, and the virtuosity with which the orchestra handled the raucous score was commendable. And Previn is one of the few conductors to tame the unruly acoustics of Avery Fisher Hall.

In Carnegie Hall, Previn offered some peculiarly distant (and orchestrally untidy) Mozart in the Piano Concerto, K. 453, with the conductor at the piano. Then he tackled Benjamin Britten's ``Spring Symphony'' -- another Previn favorite. It is a fascinating score, now restrained, now full-blooded. The composer contrasts the lyrical with the jagged and the lean with the lush, in his settings of various British poems for soprano, mezzo, tenor, chorus, and orchestra.

The trio of British soloists were all disappointing, but the Los Angeles Concert Choir did not fail Previn or Britten. And the maestro proved to be a moving advocate for this thoughtful and affecting piece. Nevertheless, a shocking number of patrons fled up the aisles as if they were encountering some hideous atonal epic.

It is still too early to say what impact Previn will end up having. But the two concerts found the partnership in tiptop shape, with a genuine rapport between maestro and players, and the sort of sound that fully justifies putting Los Angeles among the top six orchestras of the land.

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