Aaron Copland's New Deal-era aesthetic still shapes the public's idea of American music. It also still presents a challenge to later US composers, especially those who are temperamentally sympathetic to Copland's wish to combine the music of the academy with that of the people while also doing something new. Both André Previn and John Harbison fall into this category, so it was fitting that Appalachian Spring, the quintessential work of Copland's 1940s populist prime, opened this LSO concert, in apposition to substantial works by Previn and Harbison.
At 82, Previn walks to the platform with painful difficulty now, but once installed there, he still conducts with the firm hand that has always marked his work. Appalachian Spring unfolded with just the right balance between the numinous string effects and the press-on rhythmic naivety that have become the cliches of so many subsequent American film scores by other hands.
Previn's own musical output has latterly become as prodigious as his talents always were. His 2009 double concerto for violin and viola, played by the stellar pairing of Previn's ex-wife Anne-Sophie Mutter and Yuri Bashmet, begins with something of Copland's stillness, from which competing soaring solos then emerge, and is marked towards the close by big broad phrases that inevitably evoke Previn's Hollywood past. But this is a disciplined and understated work, marked more by its brief rhapsodic flourishes than the wish to make large rhetorical gestures.
Harbison's third symphony is disciplined too. It is a tautly compressed five-section work with genuinely symphonic qualities which centre around a big-boned theme that dominates the opening movement, and are echoed throughout the whole work. Previn's control of the piece was utterly persuasive. The LSO played beautifully for him in a concert that carried a special charge of mutual respect and affection for the long association of conductor and orchestra.