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Previn brings 'Owls' to the BSO

Gil Shaham
Boston Globe

Andre Previn is back on the podium of the Boston Symphony Orchestra this week. He looked rather frail last night in Symphony Hall, leading the BSO in a somewhat sleepy rendition of Beethoven's Fourth Symphony and in the world premiere of his own work "Owls." Between the two, soloist Gil Shaham injected some life into the evening with a tart and sharply etched account of Stravinsky's Violin Concerto.

Previn has a long history with BSO dating back to his debut in 1977. In recent years, he has joined the orchestra frequently as a guest conductor, both at Symphony Hall and at Tanglewood. The BSO has also introduced his compositions to the world. Last night's new work was the second Previn premiere in three seasons.

As with most of his music, "Owls" is easily accessible, openly lyrical music. It's a brief work, less than 10 minutes long, with a humble story behind its title: Previn one day discovered two baby owls that had fallen from a tree in the woods behind his home in England, and he was moved by their recovery and their return to the wild.

In his score, Previn runs with the idea of animals spotted in groups of two, dispensing woodwind instruments in pairs. The strings often speak in one massed voice, swelled up in lush sonorities; two violas scamper about. Previn has a light touch and a fluid style but those who hear his music as essentially tepid and derivative will find little grounds for changing their minds in this new work. Both adjectives applied.

But the more troublesome issue is one of balance. This year, Previn's work is the only premiere by a composer falling outside of music director James Levine's chosen phalanx of (mostly) old-guard modernists - Leon Kirchner, Elliott Carter, and Gunther Schuller - and it's the only premiere Levine is not conducting. Ideally, this fourth slot would have fallen to a composer who could offer a powerful, artistically significant rejoinder from a distant stylistic camp. There are plenty of important, exciting non-Levinean composers that the BSO might have tapped as counter-voices, but instead Previn's unprepossessing music was placed in the role of shouldering a task it could not bear.

After the Previn premiere, Shaham gave a terrific account of Stravinsky's concerto, full of lithe yet muscular playing, chiseled articulation, and coiled energy. This spare, sparkling music is full of sly glances and ironic nods to centuries past, and Shaham rendered them with all due virtuosity, but he also did not shy away from singing through Aria II with an open, warmly expressive tone. Near the end of the hurtling final movement, concertmaster Malcolm Lowe deftly jumped into the fray with his brief solo.

After intermission, Previn's Beethoven was solid yet unremarkable. The orchestra played to its customary high standard, but ultimately brought more light than heat.