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

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.

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.''

No one has charged that the Philharmonic under Previn isn't playing with distinction. Though he proved in Pittsburgh that he could rebuild an orchestra to an eminence it had lost before his 1972-78 tenure, the Los Angeles Philharmonic didn't need restructuring when Previn arrived. Basically directorless from 1984, when Giulini returned to Italy to be with his invalid wife, the ensemble needed to be rescued from what was called here ``post-Giulini drift.''

``They just needed constancy,'' says Previn. ``Giulini, because of circumstances and other commitments, wasn't here very often. And so I thought, well, maybe I should be here a lot.''

He bought a house in Los Angeles, where he now resides half the year. The other half is spent at his 32-acre estate in Surrey, England, near London, where he is still principal guest conductor of the Royal Philharmonic. Being ``here a lot,'' means a performance schedule Previn calls ``inhuman.'' ``Many times we go into performance with one week of rehearsal, when the music demands at least three,'' he says.

``When not on the rostrum in rehearsal or performance, I'm home studying,'' he says. That attitude has caused some to posit that he's trying to play down his past in Hollywood, where he began his career at age 16 with MGM, for the image of the unglamorous scholar.

That past included a decade writing musical adaptations for such films as ``Kiss Me, Kate,'' ``Kismet,'' and ``Bells Are Ringing,'' beginning in 1949. Previn cut back his jazz activities in 1960, becoming music director in Houston (1964-69), after guest appearances. Management there declined to renew his contract when they felt he was spending too much time with the London Symphony, which had selected him as principal conductor in 1968.

In 1976, he began spending about 14 weeks a year in Pittsburgh, leading the orchestra in a PBS series, ``Previn and the Pittsburgh'' and taking it on many European tours. All the while he was guest-conducting with major symphonies around the world: New York, Chicago, Vienna, Berlin, and more.

Both Previn and his critics agree the Los Angeles Philharmonic has benefited from his commitment here and his deep musical knowledge. There has been lots of Elgar, Holst, Vaughan Williams, and Britten - an English repertoire Previn knows well. He says there will be more Beethoven and Brahms in the future, but he wanted to provide a change from the usual at first. And, responding perhaps to critics who've said there were too many guest conductors in his first two seasons, Previn has promised even more availability in the remaining two years of his contract.

He has started a chamber music series that he directs and that includes members of the orchestra - accompanied at times by Previn himself on the piano. ``That has enabled me to get to know these people on a personal level and have a lot of fun - and more mutual understanding - than if I stayed all the time on the rostrum,'' he says.

As if all this weren't enough, Previn is also composing. ``The last movie I did was 23 years ago, but I compose all the time,'' he says, ticking off a piano concerto performed by Vladimir Ashkenazy a couple of years back and a cello concerto to be performed by Yo-Yo Ma next season. He has also received a commission from the Vienna Philharmonic.

The March edition of Stereo Review magazine added a new laurel by awarding him its 1987 Mabel Mercer Award for outstanding contributions to the quality of American musical life.

Though the maestro's schedule is planned in detail for the next five years, he says he's not looking forward to anything more specific than just making music.

``The best repertoire in the world is written for the symphony orchestra,'' he says. ``And the fact that you are involved in music that is better than any performance of it is a nice thought. It means you can't be bored, that every time you do Beethoven's Seventh, it's a premi`ere, because you are merely running after it, seeing if you can get a little closer.''

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