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.

 

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I worked as a teacher – so I can tell you how regressive grammar schools are

The grammars and "comprehensives" of Kent make for an unequal system. So why does Theresa May consider the county a model for the future?

In 1959 my parents moved me from a Roman Catholic primary school to the junior branch of King Henry VIII, Coventry’s most high-profile grammar. The head teacher berated my mother for betraying the one true faith, but although she was born in Galway, my mum was as relaxed about her religion as she was about her native roots. Any strong feelings about the English Reformation had disappeared around the same time as her Irish accent. Her voice gave no clue to where she was from and – as a result of a wartime commission – the same was true of my father. Together, Mrs and Mr Smith embodied postwar Britain’s first-generation upwardly mobile middle class.

Their aspiration and ambition were so strong that my mother saw no problem in paying for me to attend a Protestant school. Why, you may ask, did my dad, a middle manager and by no means well off, agree to pay the fees? Quite simply, my parents were keen that I pass the eleven-plus.

King Henry VIII School benefited from the direct grant scheme, introduced after the Education Act 1944. In Coventry, the two direct grant schools were centuries old and were paid a fee by the government to educate the fifth or so of boys who passed the eleven-plus. When secondary education in Coventry became comprehensive in the mid-1970s, King Henry VIII went fully independent; today, it charges fees of more than £10,000 per year.

A few years ago, I returned to my old school for a memorial service. As I left, I saw a small group of smartly dressed men in their late seventies. They had strong Coventry accents and intended to “go down the club” after the service. It occurred to me that they represented the small number of working-class lads who, in the years immediately after the Second World War, were lucky enough to pass the eleven-plus and (no doubt with their parents making huge sacrifices) attend “the grammar”. But by the time I moved up to King Henry VIII’s senior school in 1963 there appeared to be no one in my A-stream class from a working-class background.

From the early 1950s, many of the newly affluent middle classes used their financial power to give their children an advantage in terms of selection. My parents paid for a privileged education that placed top importance on preparation for the eleven-plus. In my class, only one boy failed the life-determining test. Today, no less than 13 per cent of entrants to the 163 grammar schools still in the state system are privately educated. No wonder preparatory schools have responded enthusiastically to Theresa May’s plans to reverse the educational orthodoxy of the past five decades.

Nowhere has the rebranding of secondary moderns as “comprehensives” been more shameless than in Kent, where the Conservative-controlled council has zealously protected educational selection. Each secondary modern in east Kent, where I taught in the 1970s, has since been named and renamed in a fruitless attempt to convince students that failing to secure a place at grammar school makes no difference to their educational experience and prospects. That is a hard message to sell to the two-thirds of ten-year-olds who fail the Kent test.

Investment and academy status have transformed the teaching environment, which a generation ago was disgraceful (I recall the lower school of a secondary modern in Canterbury as almost literally Edwardian). Ofsted inspections confirm that teachers in non-grammar schools do an amazing job, against all the odds. Nevertheless, selection reinforces social deprivation and limited aspiration in the poorest parts of the south-east of England, notably Thanet and the north Kent coastline.

A third of children in Thanet live in poverty. According to local sources (including a cross-party report of Kent councillors in 2014), disadvantaged children make up less than 9 per cent of pupils in grammar schools but 30 per cent at secondary moderns. University admissions tutors confirm the low number of applications from areas such as Thanet relative to the UK average. Though many of Kent’s secondary moderns exceed expectations, the county has the most underperforming schools in the UK.

When I began my teaching career, I was appallingly ignorant of the harsh realities of a secondary education for children who are told at the age of 11 that they are failures. Spending the years from seven to 17 at King Henry VIII School had cocooned me. More than 40 years later, I can see how little has changed in Kent – and yet, perversely, the Prime Minister perceives the county’s education system as a model for the future.

This article first appeared in the 22 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times