MUSIC: Me and Previn, we go back years

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Andre Previn 70th birthday series

Barbican, London

Towards the Millennium series

South Bank, London

I have two abiding memories of my first real concert, both connected with the fact that I was sitting in the choir seats of the Royal Festival Hall. My legs weren't long enough to reach the ground, and I accidentally kicked an angry person in the seat in front. And I had a face-on view of the conductor, who was famous. I understood his fame because I'd seen him on TV: not in the culture programmes but the ads, where he appeared twice-nightly flogging Ferguson appliances.

He was Andre Previn and, at that time, was probably the highest-profile "serious" musician in the country. Children like me who couldn't have pronounced "von Karajan" knew all about the hip conductor with the denim jacket and the film-star wife. He had the secret of assimilating glamour with the common touch, and used it shamelessly but purposefully - not just to pull in audiences but to move them on, to stretch their interest. Along with countless others, I was stretched by Previn into an enthusiasm for Vaughan Williams, Britten, Walton and Prokofiev. His tastes fixed mine. Although that left a gaping hole where basic Viennese repertory should be - Previn was never masterful in Mozart, Schubert, Beethoven or Brahms - it was a kick-start into music of consequence for which I can only be grateful.

So it was with a good deal of affection that I went to Previn's 70th birthday series at the Barbican. It wasn't quite the series it was meant to be, because Kiri te Kanawa cancelled the opening concert. But on Wednesday, Previn conducted the LSO in Vaughan Williams's 5 and the Britten Spring Symphony; it was just the sort of programme he might have conducted back in the 1960s, when he took charge of the orchestra. Until then, his career had been colourful but suspect, based largely in Hollywood, where he'd made it big (and fast) as a film composer. His sideways shift to the symphonic world was met with a mixture of fascination and distain. Orchestras liked him. Even the Vienna Philharmonic liked him. Audiences loved him. But he was widely down-valued as lightweight: a first-rate conductor of second- rate music, said his critics. And that accusation followed him, even at the height of his career.

Against it stands the testimony of his classic 1960s and 1970s recordings. The complete Vaughan Williams symphonies, the 1972 Belshazzar's Feast: these things are hardly second-rate. There are other Previn discs of mainstream repertory which I'd call paradigms of discerning musicianship: refined, intelligent, eschewing overstatement. But if anything, that was his problem. He seemed to mistrust his own talent, to hold back. And it left him in the odd position of being perceived as a showman, but without much taste for showmanship: armed with the versatility and, maybe, genius of Bernstein, but not the chutzpah.

It was lack of chutzpah that undermined his last orchestral appointment, with the Los Angeles Philharmonic, which ended sourly in 1990; and a spot of Bernsteinesque extravagance wouldn't have gone amiss in his Barbican performances last Wednesday. They were too laid back. The Vaughan Williams needed more definition in the scherzo, more intensity in the romanza; the Britten needed far more muscle, swing, or exuberance in the big ensembles. But that said, I liked the gossamer-soft string sound he encouraged from the LSO violins, and the precision of the chorus. His musicians played and sang as though they were pleased to be doing it. That's something Previn certainly still has: a pleasure quotient.

What he doesn't have at 70 is obvious animation. But did he ever? Looking back to my early experience in the RFH choir seats, I remember his mop of black hair and sharp features, but I don't remember those features registering - still less communicating - much emotion. Whatever he achieved in the way of drive and energy must have been got by other means: some chemistry that, several decades on, eludes him.

The decades have been marching on in the "Toward the Millennium" series, which must be the world's longest- running concert sequence. Now in its ninth year of surveying the music of this century, it has reached the 1980s. It's an era hard to summarise, partly because the dust has hardly settled on what was written, partly because the 1980s accelerated the general trend of 20th-century music toward pluralism, with not much in the way of common language. But in the broadest terms, you could define the 1980s as a time of relief that we'd made it through the 1970s and 1960s, years in check to hard-line modernism. And it was a time when spirituality was back on the musical agenda - largely thanks to the New Age leanings of minimalism, which featured prominently in last weekend's "Millennium" concerts at the South Bank.

On Sunday, the London Sinfonietta programmed Tehillim, the choral psalm-settings with which Steve Reich rediscovered his Jewish roots after years of diversion in African drumming rhythms and the Balinese gamelan. Before that, Simon Rattle and the CBSO had opened the new season with John Adams's Harmonium. It's probably the choral masterpiece of its immediate period, 1981, and a great, gorgeous noise of sound, with a pervasive pulse that beats like the wings of a helicopter. Or perhaps, a hyperactive angel.

I'm not sure how the music for this opening concert was selected. But it diplomatically spread its attention through three continents - America (Adams), Europe (Lutoslawski), Asia (Takemitsu) - and three contrasting attitudes to form. For Lutoslawski, represented by his Third Symphony, form was a big issue, a preoccupation. For Takemitsu, represented by works for guitar and orchestra, it wasn't; his scores perambulate with what can sometimes be the irritating vagueness of an oriental Delius - although the pieces here were compelling. As for Adams, well we all know what the minimalists do, and the objective is to sidestep scrutiny.

One common quality in all three scores was beauty; and I think this was essentially what Rattle wanted us to know. Disburdened lyricism soared back into fashion in the 1980s. Enjoyment was revived as a legitimate pursuit of music. And I hugely enjoyed this concert, which showed Rattle on supreme form: back with his old Brummie band, commanding, confident and making things happen with a clear causality that doesn't always emanate from men who wave white sticks at orchestras. If it continues through what promises to be a fascinating series in the weeks ahead, these 1980s concerts might just be the best of the "Millennium" yet.

Previn Series: Barbican, EC2 (0171 638 8891), Mon. `Towards the Millennium': RFH, SE1 (0171 960 4242), continuing.