The Oslo Philharmonic Orchestra arrived at the Kimmel Center Friday with three obvious distinctions: It launched the international career of conductor Mariss Jansons, is currently hosting what will probably be the last full-time orchestral appointment of 75-year-old André Previn (who conducts the current tour), and may well be the blondest orchestra on the planet. From there, you can say that the orchestra doesn't play like stereotypical blondes - how could it with Strauss' gargantuan Alpine Symphony on the program - but hasn't a great deal of personality (even though performances were personable).
The program had a too-languid reading of Debussy's Afternoon of a Faun, Previn's own Violin Concerto written for and played by his wife, Anne-Sophie Mutter, and the aforementioned Strauss, all distinguished by the conductor's refusal to indulge in sound for sound's sake - as would be so easy to do in this repertoire. Previn seems rather physically compromised these days, so it's no surprise that, like Wolfgang Sawallisch, his Strauss is satisfying because it focuses on essentials.
The Alpine Symphony's ultra-literal subtext is basically a day in the life of a mountain. As one who has spent much time climbing around such things, I don't buy it, and I don't think Previn does either. He downplayed Strauss' musical descriptions, which were generally inferior to Debussy's or Mahler's, and seem based on such thirdhand observations you wonder if the composer never left his car.
Yet Previn fused the piece's series of disparate episodes into a convincing 60-minute span of music with nonlingering tempos (reminiscent of the composer's own performances), a constant evolution of sound that kept the piece from delivering redundant vistas, and clean sonorities revealing details that other performances miss. So you weren't left wondering why this musical travelogue doesn't have a slide projector.
Just as I should like the Alpine Symphony but do not, Previn's Violin Concerto is captivating in ways that we children of the 1970s avant-garde should reject out of hand. So polystylistic is the piece, it's like a blindfold test of 20th-century music: You think, "Ah! Yes! Britten's Peter Grimes. " Or, "Erich Wolfgang Korngold's Violin Concerto. " And you wouldn't be wrong, The question is if you care - and I don't.
Any admirer of violinists is inevitably taken in by Mutter's technically and emotionally persuasive account of the piece. Also, the score's near-quotations reflect the cultural splintering of our world, and are deployed with style and even mystery.
The concerto's inspired opening gesture - an upward-leaping horn call with odd, crowded harmonies - is haunting purely as music, and also has autobiographical symbolism. The hunting horn is a fixture in German romanticism, but the Berlin-born Previn's version of it is filtered through the suaveness of the neoclassic Stravinsky and Samuel Barber that were in the Los Angeles air where he grew up.
As a conductor, Previn could have shaped his concerto much more convincingly. Maybe he's so aware of what's in the score that he forgets to tell us more about it.