Andre Previn's pulling power

In classical music, the "special relationship" is alive and well

Andre Previn, Anne-Sophie Mutter, Yuri Bashmet, LSO
Barbican Hall, 7.30pm, 19 February 2012

Politically things may have cooled, but in the world of classical music the transatlantic "special relationship" is still alive and flourishing. Following closely on the polished heels and glossy tail-coats of last week's New York Philharmonic's residency comes a visit from legendary octogenarian pianist and conductor Andre Previn, rejoining the London Symphony Orchestra for an all-American programme of 20th century music.

Previn may have left the position of Principal Conductor at the LSO some decades ago, but his visits have been so frequent that London audiences have scarcely had cause to mourn. Judging by the conductor's increasingly frail and effortful journeys to the podium however it's a collaboration that we should enjoy while we still have the chance - a sentiment clearly shared by the Barbican crowd, warm with enthusiasm for Previn.

The concert's centrepiece was the European premiere of Previn's own Concerto for Violin and Viola, which saw the LSO joined by the work's dedicatees, violinist Anne-Sophie Mutter (also for a time Previn's fifth wife) and violist Yuri Bashmet. Following in the tradition set by Previn's earlier compositions it's a polyglot creature, conservative in its harmonic language but borrowing freely from many different tonal traditions.

Previn's longstanding relationship with film-music prompts inevitable comparisons with Korngold, but there's an elegiac wistfulness to this particular concerto that speaks more loudly of Walton and Howells (the viola's opening gambit especially), their English voices in dialogue with jazz-inflected moments of Ravel and pure Americana. It's a modest concerto - less than 20 minutes of music, treating its two soloists texturally and often in duet.

Last night it was a pairing that worked rather better for Mutter, whose lines were unusually charged with emotion, largely obliterating the under-projected, poorly-tuned and non-committal mutterings of Bashmet. A capricious musician, Bashmet may be unbeatable on form, but his moody inconsistency is making him ever more of a risk as a soloist.

Aaron Copland's ballet Appalachian Spring in its full orchestral arrangement offered an enticing curtain-raiser, but I wonder how Martha Graham and her company of dancers would have coped with Previn's tempos which charity might call poised, but often dragged the work's pulsing syncopations almost to a standstill. Previn's beat - so precise and clear in both his own music and the Harbison symphony - seemed an unreliable guide for the LSO whose floundering ensemble and wrong entries spoke of general uncertainty. There were hints of Copland's glowing folk warmth in the slower string passages (and leader Roman Simovic's solos were a highlight) but with the work slipping in and out of focus these were never quite sustained into anything more substantial.

Although well-known in his native America, John Harbison's works are rarely heard (and still more rarely discussed) in the UK. An academic by inclination as well as by trade, his continuous five-episode Symphony No. 3 is a good sampler of the composer's technique - rigorous structural architecture underpinning attractive textural effects. With their programmatic titles - "Disconsolate", "Nostalgic", "Militant" - the movements lend themselves to evocation, an approach that works particularly well in second episode "Nostalgic", where disparate memories stir from each orchestral section - a folk tune from the woodwind, grudging remembrances from the brass - before becoming woven together in a colourful fog over sustained pedal points. "Militant" stages a vibrant fist-fight between tuned percussion and orchestra (with the LSO percussion section redeeming themselves after issues in the Copland), before we cruise into the finale and a huge groove from the brass.

Technical issues aside this was a fascinating concert: an evening's American holiday that educated as much as it entertained. The pulling-power of the mighty Previn is such that a rather abstruse programme drew a full crowd, and I'm sure I'm not alone in hoping that this most determined ambassador for American music continues to return to the London and the LSO for as long as he is able.

 

Alexandra Coghlan is the New Statesman's classical music critic.

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The lute master and the siege of Aleppo

Luthier Ibrahim al-Sukkar's shop was bombed; when he moved, militants came for him. Over WhatsApp, he told me what's next.

Aleppo was once a city of music, but this year the 400,000 residents who inhabit its eastern suburbs can hear nothing but the roar of Russian warplanes, and ear-shattering blasts from the bombs they drop. To the north, west and south, the city is encircled by ground troops from the Syrian armed forces, Hezbollah and Iran. Most residents are afraid to flee, but soon, now that supply lines to the city have been cut off, many will begin to starve. We have reached the crescendo of Aleppo’s suffering in year five of the Syrian civil war.

One clear August morning in 2012, in the early weeks of the battle for the city, a man approached a street corner shop and found a hundred shattered lutes scattered across the floor. Ibrahim al-Sukkar, the engineer who had made the lutes (Arabs know the instrument as the oud), was overwhelmed. He wandered between the tables of his workshop and peered up at the sky, suddenly visible through holes in the roof. He wept on the floor, amid the dust and ash.

Some of the wooden shards that lay around him had been lutes commissioned by musicians in Europe and America. Others were to be used by students in Damascus and Amman. Each oud was built for a specific purpose. In every shard Ibrahim saw a piece of himself, a memory scattered and charred by government bombs. He packed his bags and headed for Idlib, a few hours to the west, where he set up shop a second time. A year later, his workshop was destroyed again, this time by Islamist militants.

It was at this point that Ibrahim came to a stark realisation – he was a target. If barrel bombs from government helicopters could not succeed in destroying him, the Islamists would. The cost of sourcing materials and getting goods to market had become unmanageable. The society that had inspired his desire to make musical instruments was now trying to lynch him for it.

The 11 string courses of an oud, when plucked, lend the air that passes through its bowl the sounds of Arabic modes known as maqamat. Each one evokes an emotion. Hijaz suggests loneliness and melancholy. Ajam elicits light-heartedness and cheer. An oud player’s competence is judged by his or her ability to improvise using these modes, modulating between them to manipulate the listener’s mood. The luthier, the architect of the oud system, must be equal parts artist and scientist.

This is how Ibrahim al-Sukkar views himself. He is a trained mechanical engineer, but before that he was a lover of classical Arabic music. As a young man in the Syrian countryside, he developed a talent for playing the oud but his mathematical mind demanded that he should study the mechanics behind the music. Long hours in the workshop taking instruments apart led him to spend 25 years putting them together. Ibrahim’s ouds are known for their solid construction and, thanks to his obsessive experimentation with acoustics, the unparalleled volume they produce.

Ibrahim and I recently spoke using WhatsApp messenger. Today, he is lying low in the village where he was born in Idlib province, close to the Turkish border. Every so often, when he can, he sends some of his equipment through to Turkey. It will wait there in storage until he, too, can make the crossing. I asked him if he still felt that his life was in danger. “All musicians and artists in Syria are in danger now, but it’s a sensitive topic,” he wrote, afraid to say more. “I expect to be in Turkey some time in February. God willing, we will speak then.”

Ibrahim’s crossing is now more perilous than ever. Residents of Idlib are watching the developing siege of Aleppo with a sense of foreboding. Government forces are primed to besiege Idlib next, now that the flow of traffic and supplies between Aleppo and the Turkish border has been intercepted. And yet, to Ibrahim, the reward – the next oud – is worth the risk.

I bought my first oud from a Tunisian student in London in autumn 2014. It is a humble, unobtrusive instrument, with a gentle, wheat-coloured soundboard covering a cavernous, almond-shaped bowl. Some ouds are decorated with rosettes, wooden discs carved with dazzling patterns of Islamic geometry. Others are inlaid with mother-of-pearl. My instrument, however, is far simpler in design, decorated only with a smattering of nicks and scratches inflicted by the nails of impatient players, and the creeping patina imprinted by the oils of their fingers on its neck.

My instructor once told me that this oud was “built to last for ever”. Only recently did I discover the sticker hidden inside the body which reads: “Made in 2006 by Engineer Ibrahim al-Sukkar, Aleppo.” 

This article first appeared in the 11 February 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle