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Previn’s Last Work, in Tribute

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A long-awaited performance, one that almost did not happen owing to the composer’s death, took place in Ozawa Hall on Wednesday night in tribute to Andre Previn, who died while still working on Penelope, a monodrama planned for Renee Fleming and the Emerson Quartet, but performed in a program largely planned in tribute to Previn, who has appeared at Tanglewood over many years in many guises. Fleming and the Quartet were joined by pianist Simone Dinnerstein, and actress Uma Thurman.

The Previn work, on the second half, was preceded by three pieces for string quartet that could be considered, in some sense, also tributes, or at least music to motivate deep thought. 

The Lyric for Strings by George Walker (1922-2008), another composer who died recently at an advanced age, was originally part of his String Quartet No. 1, from 1946. The slow movement, Lament, dedicated to the memory of his grandmother, a darkly intense movement, has come to be one of Walker’s most frequently performed works. It comes from the same kind of musical world as the Barber Adagio, heard later in the same program, except that Walker’s score is more redolent of African-American spirituals, without actual quotations, richly played by the Emersons.

Next came a new string quartet, the Tenth, by Richard Wernick (b. 1934), written for the Emerson Quartet and premiered in Berlin last March. It was a re-encounter with the ensemble for whom Wernick had written his Fourth Quartet thirty years ago. His style bears traces of some of the complex musical approaches from the second half of the 20th century, though it is vivid and alert, music that an audience can respond to if willing to pay attention and not expect  that all dissonances will be avoided. Experienced quartet listeners will surely experience some of the tricks he employs—including a beginning recognizing the fact that the two violinists of the Emerson Quartet regularly change positions, so Wernick offers a fugue subject (“somewhat inebriate,” he calls it) that has two first violin parts, in the sense that they both take leadership positions, or the recognizable reference to Beethoven’s song of thanks (Heiliger Dankgesang) on recovering from an illness (Wernick’s thanks are addressed to a neurosurgeon whose skill “kept me upright”).

The first half closed with Samuel Barber’s String Quartet—the whole quartet, in two movements, of which the second, often heard by itself, is the famous Adagio. Though Barber never intended it as such, the slowly unfolding Adagio took on a commemorative tinge when it was played after the death of FDR in 1945, and since then an air of memorial tribute has remained connected with it, so it was a suitable piece for a memorial purpose, somber and hushed, except for a single large climax resolving again into silence.

Andre Previn had tried for a number of years to get his good friend Tom Stoppard to come up with a text that would serve as a monodrama for Renee Fleming. For a long time Stoppard felt blocked in finding a subject. The solution, in the end, was to have Renee Fleming represent Penelope, the long-suffering, patient, and chaste wife of Odysseus, while her husband spent a decade fighting the Trojan War and another decade finding his way home, amid dangers and temptations. Renee Fleming was intended to be Penelope and to express her wide range of feelings over the long time that she waited and fended off a batch of suitors.

When Previn died, on February 28, he left a mass of materials, extensive, but far from finished. His long-time editor David Fetherolf was asked to try to get the score into a performable shape. Consulting with Renee Fleming and Eugene Drucker of the Emerson Quartet, Fetherolf found a way to make the materials work; some of the more exiguous sketches, hardly likely to be final thoughts, were trimmed, but others seemed essentially finished and worked well. The text was divided between two vocal performers, both representing Penelope:  Renee sang the lyric passages, and Una Thurman read the most descriptive sections, Though of course Penelope was the principal figure, the story referred to the background: the intensity of their marital experiences before Odysseus left for the war, the long and dreary passages of time waiting for his return, the trickery by which he returned without being recognized by the suitors until it was time to take his revenge, and the test questions about the marital bed by which Penelope was sure that it really was Odysseus who returned—all these elements of the classic story were represented by the singer and the actor, accompanied by the Emerson Quartet and Simone Dinnerstein in about a 40-minute musical narration.

Renee Fleming, the Emerson Quartet, and Uma Thurman (Hilary Scott)

There was passion and wit, musical warmth and spoken sarcasm, as this version of one of the world’s most famous stories unfolded. The narrative was rich and very interesting indeed (no surprise given Tom Stoppard’s linguistic brilliance), and the instrumental portion—string quartet and piano, separately or together, suggested all kinds of moods and echoes of the adventures, but especially of the emotions of Penelope over so long a period.

The response of the audience was eagerly powerful, for all of the performers and for writer Tom Stoppard, who was also present. I am reasonably sure that this final Previn score will fit onto that shelf containing pieces that many composers almost finished at the ends of their lives—almost, but not quite, which were brought to a performable state by their supportive colleagues who wanted their final musicals thoughts to have a life.

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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3 Comments [leave a civil comment (others will be removed) and please disclose relevant affiliations]

  1. The Barber quartet has three movements, of which the third is an abbreviated reprise of the first. Did the Emersons not play the last movement?

    Comment by Vance Koven — July 26, 2019 at 5:52 pm

  2. See the Prichards’ report.

    Comment by David R. Moran — July 26, 2019 at 7:37 pm

  3. They played it… I just thought of it as essentially a tag ending to the second movement, rather than a full movement in itself, which is why I wrote it the way I did.

    Comment by Steve Ledbetter — July 29, 2019 at 9:50 pm

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