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Previn settling in with L.A. Philharmonic. His two-year tenure has resulted in innovations - and some criticism

By Daniel B. WoodStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / May 6, 1987



Los Angeles

WANDERING the cluttered wings of the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion in running shoes, dungarees, and a Beatles haircut, conductor Andr'e Previn looks as if he might be in search of a tennis partner or pickup game of basketball. But the man who left Hollywood 25 years ago with four Oscars for his film compositions has just stepped out of a rehearsal with the Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra. In what was hailed as a ``marriage made in heaven,'' this versatile maestro - who is also an arranger, jazz pianist and Broadway composer - took the directorship of the Philharmonic last season amid more than usual Hollywood-style hoopla.

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The drumbeats were extra loud, after all, because the decades of his absence saw both the conductor and the orchestra grow immensely in status. Previn served as director for three orchestras - the Houston, the London, and the Pittsburgh, and made nearly 200 recordings. The Philharmonic, meanwhile, had been groomed to first-rank status by two charismatic conductors, Zubin Mehta and Carlo Maria Guilini.

Now, after two seasons, the marriage appears from within to be a success. The programming of more English, French, and Russian music than in previous years has provided a breath of fresh air. The orchestra began a major European tour last Friday, during which it is helping Berlin celebrate its 750th birthday. And the Philharmonic has attracted national attention with its plans to present Sergei Eisenstein's 1938 silent film classic, ``Alexander Nevsky,'' with full symphony and chorus in the first leg of a trans-America benefit next fall. ``It's the most glorious and complicated film score ever written,'' Previn says.

Amid all this, however, the orchestra is being battered somewhat from without. Critics have charged that Previn has failed to capture the imagination of a broad public. Though no one expects the Philharmonic to meet the fate of the orchestra in neighboring San Diego, which canceled its season because of financial problems, or of the one in Oakland, which went bankrupt, some critics demand more pizazz on the podium and more standard classics - Beethoven and Brahms - on the program to ensure audience loyalty.

Some of the criticism has been very hard hitting. Even Martin Bernheimer, in his loyal-opposition role as critic for the Los Angeles Times, has lamented that ``Thursday night subscription concerts sometimes haven't been very exciting or well-attended here lately.''

But there have been enough sizzling evenings so that even the harshest detractors aren't counting Previn out.

After a day's rehearsal, Previn takes a break in his posh dressing room just off the main stage to chat with an interviewer about his approach to music, his plans for the orchestra, and the criticism.

``A lot of criticism about me is that I seem to underconduct. But I like the style,'' he says, tossing off the concerns of critics who had gotten used to the crowd-pleasing machismo and scowls of Zubin Mehta and the exuberance and passion of Guilini.

``I find - to put it an absolutely idiotic way - that if you jump up and down, they don't play any louder. So what's the point?'' An early conducting teacher, Pierre Monteux, once told Previn to strive for rhythmic and textual clarity, not gymnastics with the baton. ```Before you impress the ladies in the balcony,' Mr. Monteux said, `make sure the horns come in right.''' Previn still subscribes to that.

``I don't know whether it's [my] 21 years with English orchestras, where they don't believe in [podium dramatics], but I got over that a long time ago. And now I just work for the orchestra. If it's clear to them and if I make them play a certain way, then certainly, visually, I've got no time left to look good to an audience. They should just listen.''