Andre Previn has decided to celebrate the end of his second season as music director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic with two contrasting nods in the direction of 1908.
To open the program Thursday, he offered the modernistic explorations of Arnold Schoenberg's Five Pieces for Orchestra, Opus 16. To close the program, the maestro turned to the sentimental convolutions of Edward Elgar's Symphony No. 1.
Both works were first performed 79 years ago. And both, not incidentally, will figure prominently in the repertory to be played by Previn and the orchestra on their upcoming European tour.
Between these relatively adventurous disparities, William Lane stepped up from his customary post as principal horn to convey the charming bravura of Mozart's E-flat Concerto, K. 417.
It certainly was an interesting night at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion. Unfortunately, it wasn't a very exciting night.
The contrast between the Schoenberg and the Elgar was, of course, illuminating. While the 34-year-old Austrian composer was straining to escape the harmonic and expressive limitations of a romanticism in decay, the 51-year-old Briton was wallowing in those very limitations. Where Schoenberg saw a need to go forward and break boundaries, Elgar was perfectly content to go backward and savor the safety of the old rules.
In the Five Pieces, Schoenberg still spoke a basically traditional 19th-Century vocabulary. But he spoke it boldly, economically, with harsh accents and coloristic flair. He obviously cared for form as much as content, and he knew, even at this early date, that it was time to redefine popular conceptions of dissonance and tonal order.
In the cool light of 1987, the tight little Pieces retain a certain epigrammatic appeal. They still titillate and fascinate. They still demonstrate a concern, admittedly muted, for subtle theatricality. They still provide students with rewarding subjects for developmental analysis.
They also document the work of a composer in crucial transition. Viewed in the context of the musical revolution that was to come, the Five Pieces seem strangely polite, innocent, perhaps even naive.
In his sprawling First Symphony, Elgar played knowingly with all the familiar toys of slushpump indulgence. For 50 very long minutes, he stretched the rather feeble melodic impulses at his command, elevated throat-clearing to a high art, tugged at lofty secondhand emotions with a sure and insistent hand.
He was crafty, to be sure, and he had an uncanny knack for making lightweight ideas sound heavy. He also knew how to make musical water-treading seem profound. Most important, he knew how to make everything sound smooth and thick and pretty.
His champions--locally they have included Zubin Mehta and Andrew Davis--find nobility and grandeur in this music. His detractors find much ado about little. Count this bored curmudgeon among the detractors.
Previn and the orchestra played the dry Schoenberg with splendid clarity and, where possible, with verve. They played the soggy Elgar with appropriate measures of subtlety and opulence.
In the marvelous Mozart concerto, Lane revealed a dazzling virtuoso technique, extraordinarily mellifluous tone and a rather phlegmatic temperament. His high style was compromised, to a degree, by low brio.
Previn & Co. provided amiable support.