There was a perverse irony in the musical chairs being played at the Barbican over the weekend. No sooner had the New York Philharmonic ended its residency of exclusively European music than the London Symphony Orchestra moved in with an all-American programme – well, “American” if you mean the nationality of the composers. Copland’s Suite from Appalachian Spring, André Previn’s Concerto for Violin and Viola and John Harbison’s Third Symphony actually have less to do with the American-ness of Ives, Gershwin and Glass, and more with the Dead White European Male syndrome that permeated US concert life in the last century.
Copland, the great white hope of mid-century American music, tried to root his idiom in the New World but didn’t succeed: at least, that was the impression left by the LSO’s performance, which lacked the easy energy a US orchestra might have brought. The other two composers are still alive but the style of their music is as good as dead. Previn’s 30-minute concerto and Harbison’s single-movement symphony are both so old-fashioned as to be European in all but name.
Harbison, a dyed-in-the-wool New England academic composer, uses orchestration to pump up a symphony that goes nowhere. American only in its occasional raucousness and smoochy rhythm, the music is too monotone in tempo and argument to grip the imagination. The LSO clearly did not believe in it.
This concert was all about Previn. Now in his early 80s, the one-time darling of the British media cuts a frail figure as he struggles to the rostrum. The LSO still has survivors from his days as principal conductor, but sentiment alone cannot create drive and co-ordination out of such a flaccid beat. The concerto’s European premiere was nevertheless worth hearing – not for the ill-tuned playing of violist Yuri Bashmet, but for Anne-Sophie Mutter’s ardent investment in the violin part, and for the moving quality of the music. Full of elegiac melody, Walton-esque timbres and wispy, almost unbearably poignant dialogues, it came across as the story of an old man looking back on life and preparing to say farewell.