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Mutter and BSO Commemorate Previn

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Anne-Sophie Mutter (Hilary Scott photo)

The BSO billed Saturday night’s concert at Tanglewood as a celebration of the life of Andre Previn, the polymath pianist (of both jazz and classical repertory), composer, and conductor, not to mention the sometime husband of the evening’s soloist, Anne-Sophie Mutter; Previn died on February 28th at the age of 89. The celebration began in the Tanglewood program book with a biographical essay emphasizing his many connections to the Boston Symphony and the Chamber Players (he wrote commissioned works for both and led several BSO premieres of his works), as well as many occasions of teaching and coaching chamber music performances at Tanglewood. This was followed by a warm letter from Anne-Sophie Mutter herself addressed to “My dearest Andre,” recalling many happy musical experiences that they shared (they remained close even after their divorce). What was to be her tenth world premiere of a work he had written for her, to take place at Carnegie Hall last March, in anticipation of his 90th birthday on April 6, became a memorial owing to his death just a week earlier.

Of course, the main element of the evening that was especially focused as commemorative was the performance, by Anne-Sophie Mutter with Andris Nelsons conducting, of Previn’s violin concerto composed for her on a commission from the Boston Symphony and named “Anne-Sophie.” The original performance took place on March 14, 2002. Not surprisingly, the concerto, written for the composer’s wife, is fundamentally romantic in character, though—given her position as one of the world’s leading violinists—it also has its share of virtuosic passages, often growing out of essentially lyrical music. Spacious, it runs to about 40 minutes, with movements flowing quite directly into on another, so that, despite changes of mood, it feels like a whole. The second movement begins as a cadenza but continues in a subdued, warm slow mood.

The finale bears the somewhat surprising heading “(from a train in Germany),” which is, in fact, a reference to the original impetus for the work. One day, while riding on a German train, Previn called his artist manager Ronald Wilford to wish him a happy birthday. Shortly afterward, Wilford suggested that Previn compose a piece reflecting the experience of riding the train through the land where he had been born. The composer chose to incorporate a German folksong he had known since childhood, “Wenn ich ein Vöglein wär” (If I were a little bird), as the basis of a set of variations. The result is evocative, less predictable than the formal description might suggest, but it allows for a considerable range of expressive effects, for both orchestra and soloists. And he decided to make it a violin concerto for Mutter.

Naturally Mutter played the challenging score with passion, clarity, and virtuosity, winning the audience to such a degree that they were hardly willing to let her go. She finally announced an encore: the middle movement, “Song,” from the first score that Previn had composed for her, in 1996, Tango, Song, and Dance. More enthusiastic applause of course ensued.

The concert had opened with a short but dramatic score by one of America’s leading composers, Joan Tower, the title, obvious chosen in imitation of and homage to Aaron Copland’s Fanfare for the Common Man, is Fanfare for the Uncommon Woman, with the same instrumentation as Copland’s famous work. It was first performed in Houston in 1987, where it made a sensation, to the degree that Tower has written five further fanfares with that title, so that the piece performed on Saturday night now has “No. 1” added to the title. In an orchestral concert, it naturally appears as a brilliant opening gesture, with the brass and percussion instruments appearing an on an empty stage and playing under the directorship of Andris Nelsons. The composer came to the front of the Shed to accept her well-earned kudos.

Fanfare for the Uncommon Woman (Hilary Scott photo)

Following intermission, the concert closed with what may be the most satisfying performance I have ever heard of that wonderful old warhorse, Dvořàk’s New World Symphony. On this occasion, the members of the BSO played as vividly as they do, under the masterful phrase-shaping of Andris Nelsons. The score is replete with tunes and hints of tunes, of varying character, and the thing that brings it to life is to recognize the spirit of each element, even if it appears only briefly. To take one example, early in the first movement, there is a soft flute melody that evidently contains a brief quotation from the spiritual “Swing low, sweet chariot.” In the symphony, the melody begins with the four notes that go with “chariot” in the song. When we first hear it, it is a simple, unaffected tune, and Nelsons allows it almost to sneak into our consciousness. But not long after, Dvořàk takes just those first four notes as a driving melodic-rhythmic pattern at a fast tempo repeated dozens of times as an energetic background in the strings while other instruments are building fanfares to a dramatic climax. The flexibility of this and many other passages in the score, made it a matter of considerable delight. No matter how often I’ve heard the symphony, I am always ready for a performance as rich and vivid as Saturday night’s.

Steven Ledbetter is a freelance writer and lecturer on music. He got his BA from Pomona College and PhD from NYU in Musicology. He taught at Dartmouth College in the 1970s, then became program annotator at the Boston Symphony Orchestra from 1979 to 1997.

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