The National Symphony Celebrates André Previn's Eight Decades

Andre Previn led the NSO.
Andre Previn led the NSO. (By Lillian Birnba)
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By Anne Midgette
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, February 2, 2009

André Previn has been knighted, won four Oscars and received the Kennedy Center Honors. On Saturday he was feted again as the National Symphony Orchestra threw him a concert for his upcoming 80th birthday. If this recognition seems a little less important than some of the other accolades he's won, well, it was matched by the level of this well-meaning performance.

Previn seemed frail. He walked out slowly, stepped onto the conductor's podium with a visible effort, and required a helping hand each time he stepped down. His conducting bore marks of frailty as well. That's not to say the orchestra was quiet. It was, rather, heavy and somewhat undifferentiated in tone, so that the four movements of the opening Haydn symphony, the thoughtful No. 104, all came off with a certain sameness. His cues were evidently not clear, to judge from at least one misstep -- the third-movement minuet features some unexpected pauses that unfortunately seemed unexpected to the orchestra as well.

The evening's other star was the violinist Anne-Sophie Mutter, who may well have still been Mrs. Previn when this event was planned, but whose four-year marriage to the conductor and composer (his fifth) ended in 2006. There was little interaction between the two onstage before the music started, but Mutter was otherwise responsible for what fireworks the evening had to offer.

Mutter is a strong violinist: That is, strength is the most notable characteristic of her playing. She approaches music with a focused aggression that brings a certain dynamism even when, paradoxically, she projects detachment. Her hallmark is a terrific, forceful bow arm. On Saturday, though, in Mozart's Third Violin Concerto, she sometimes sounded like a pianist who is too fond of the damper pedal. Her passagework was clean but often completely blurred into a smooth featureless stream of music. And if she is a strong musician, she is anything but a spontaneous one. That mighty bow was frequently reined in, in little interpretive tics and bounces that would have bordered on the precious had they come out with less power; as it was, they seemed automatic. A hint of vulnerability came through in the gentle close of the second movement. It was a fleeting, and appealing, chink in the armor.

As for Previn, he was most animated by his own music. His Double Concerto for Violin, Contrabass, and Orchestra, written in 2007 for Mutter and a young contrabass player named Roman Patkoló (the recipient of a stipend from Mutter's foundation for string players in 1999), was jazzy and animated, opening with more fire in the belly than the evening had yet demonstrated.

Putting the mellow bass into a solo role is a challenge in the context of an orchestra, where the instrument has trouble projecting over the mass of sound to which it generally serves as a barely perceived foundation. (Edgar Meyer, the well-known soloist, often uses amplification.) Here, bass and violin, often playing in distant octaves, served as brackets for the whiz-bangs of sound. In the second movement, the orchestra stopped playing altogether and gave them an extended a cappella duet. Patkoló played beautifully, particularly in the gentle amber solo in the final movement, which yielded to a chattering passage for the violin, as if spurring the other instrument to articulate with more bite.

The evening finished with a bang and the suite from Strauss's "Rosenkavalier." It was very loud and very rough, with some striking sloppiness from the orchestra's usually sovereign violins indicating again that Previn's conducting was not as clear as it was emphatic. But at a birthday party, precision may be less called for than celebration.

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