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The Lebrecht Weekly


Visit every week to read Norman Lebrecht's latest column. [Index]

The appointment of Andre Previn - How not to choose a music director

By Norman Lebrecht / July 18, 2001

Two more doors have been slammed in the face of renewal as Europe fills its prime musical positions without due process or a proper survey of available talent.

The Dresden Staatskapelle has just named Bernard Haitink to succeed the late Giuseppe Sinopoli as music director. The Oslo Philharmonic has announced that Andre Previn will take over next summer from the departing Mariss Jansons. Haitink is 72 years old; Previn will be 73 when his four-year contract takes effect.

Haitink's move is the more justifiable. He has worked with Dresden for several years and will provide continuity while contenders are quietly auditioned. A base in Dresden will put Haitink at a respectable distance from Covent Garden, where relations have soured again. It will also allow him one last chance to do what no Dutch conductor has done before - to conquer the hearts and minds of the German musical public.

The Oslo deal, on the other hand, goes down as Norvege, nul points. The Norwegians, phlegmatic to a fault, appear to believe that Previn will bring a dash of Hollywood glamour to their strait-laced band and gain them a foothold on American soil. Some hopes.

The ensemble that Jansons has built over 20 years has a sound all of its own, a rich and sweet-sour resonance that stands out like a silk topper among a sea of baseball caps. The Oslo Philharmonic does not make whoopee or play pops. It plays straight, works hard and does great credit to king and country.

So what can a former electrical-goods advertiser with five ex-wives and a hatful of vocational distractions add to its allure? Andre Previn has been music director, since 1967, of the London Symphony Orchestra, the RPO, the Pittsburgh Symphony and the Los Angeles Philharmonic. He left no lasting musical imprint on any of them.

Previn's forte is the one-night stand in Vienna, Berlin and other highspots, cheering the players in rehearsal with merry quips before steering them through midweek subscription nights. Previn is popular with orchestras because he seldom cancels and often stands in for fallen comrades. He also plays a sanitised kind of jazz on Deutsche Grammophon that kids the European haut monde into thinking itself multicultural.

But he does like to have an orchestra he can call his own. He also likes to compose, play piano, get married and write memoirs. He is presently working on a second opera and a violin concerto for Anne-Sophie Mutter.

With the best will in the world and the vigour of a virgin bridegroom, he cannot invest the amount of time a music director needs to mould an orchestra to his way of thinking and lead it into uncharted repertoire. At 73 he will merely be blocking the path of a younger man and marking time for the next four years.

Oslo, had it held its nerve, could have scanned a flock of fine young Finns from the Sibelius Academy, among a host of emergent talent. It may be unfair, however, to pick on the Norwegians when top American orchestras are chickening out in much the same way - hiring safe vintages in place of freshly uncorked effervescence.

The problem lies with a selection process that is becoming too convoluted to produce the best results. Traditionally, music directors were chosen by governments and boards of management - except in the self-governing orchestras of London, Berlin and Vienna, where the players had the first and final say.

Over the past decade, global democratisation has yielded a more open procedure that takes in the views of players, managers, funders, hall-cleaners and audience focus groups. Like the current election for a British Conservative leader, it may look more ethical than smoke-filled rooms but it does not necessarily produce the best result.

W hat tends to emerge is a compromise name, one that has been tried and tested once too often. Few orchestras will offer their baton to a man on the strength of an overpowering debut, as Birmingham did to Sakari Oramo.

Those who follow gut instinct can be gutted in the long term, as the London Philharmonic were with Franz Welser-Most and Minnesota with young Eiji Oue. But at least these ensembles had the satisfaction of knowing that they had erred in the heat of passion rather than in desk-bound desiccation.

So how should an orchestra pick a chief conductor? By putting the tingle-factor on top of the pile and taking the most exciting ride on offer - which does not rule out the oldies: it's a case of what turns you on.

That, sadly, is not how such decisions are made. Most orchestras and managers prefer an orderly life. Fiery conductors get invited back as guests. The ones who make the shortlist for music director are punctual, polite and infinitely practical - which explains the deadly tedium at the heart of concert life.

12 March 1999: Previn draws on a lifetime's experience to find emotional depth

Visit every week to read Norman Lebrecht's latest column. [Index]




(c) La Scena Musicale 1999