André Previn, who died in February, was a bona fide master of all musical trades. Malcolm Hayes looks back at his extraordinary life and many achievements
‘‘Besides his enthralling talent as a pianist and conductor, he looked good and talked engagingly ’’
The elusive art of conducting can be assessed in all kinds of different ways. One of them is the indefinable gift of making a difference to the surrounding music-making while not appearing to get in the way. A contradiction in terms, maybe – but unmistakable whenever you come across it, and relating to a blend of innate talent, the knack of silent communication with fellow performers (reaching through them to the listener), and an instinct for knowing what you want and how to get it. Over the past few decades, it’s difficult to think of any conductor who was better at that than André Previn.
The ‘Previn years’ in these islands centred round his time as principal conductor of the London Symphony Orchestra from 1968 to
1979. Besides his enthralling talent as a pianist and conductor, he looked good (younger than he was), talked engagingly and handled media requirements with ease. In today’s parlance, he ‘ticked all the boxes’.
In retrospect, however, both the Previn phenomenon and the musical world that then surrounded it seem very different from the present-day scene, where what’s perceived as a suitable media profile for an artist is a central requirement, not an optional extra. While none
of this is ‘wrong’ or ‘bad’ in itself, many classical performers and their managements now feel they need quite consciously to pursue image. But Previn never seemed to pursue any such thing. Visibility of that kind came to him naturally and appealed to audiences – both musical and televisual – all the more because it was not forced, any more than his wonderful musical gift.
Likeable communication skills are part of the DNA of American culture and Previn was fortunate, in more senses than one, to encounter this as early as he did. He was born into a Jewish family in 1929 in Berlin, the son of Jacob Priwin, a Polish lawyer and music teacher. Prodigiously f luent at a piano keyboard from the start, the young Andreas Previn entered the Berlin Conservatoire at six. Three years later his father escaped Nazi Germany and took the family to Paris and then to Los Angeles, where a cousin was musical director at Universal Studios. While still a teenager, Previn landed a job at MGM as a composer, arranger and conductor – a position he
held until the early 1960s, while continuing his film-music work as a freelance after that date.
His prolific output in this area included arrangements for film musicals still warmly remembered, among them Irma la Douce, My
Fair Lady (both won Oscars), Kiss Me, Kate and Paint Your Wagon. There were original scores too – notably for Bad Day at Black Rock and Elmer Gantry – plus scores that arranged assortments of music by others (Gigi, Thoroughly Modern Millie, Ken Russell’s The Music Lovers). Previn always maintained that these years of studio work taught him qualities valuable to a classical concert artist, including an avoidance of preciousness: since film scores have to be mostly written and arranged after final editing, and therefore at top speed, the situation was ‘Here’s the movie, here’s the scene, just go away and write the score’. Throughout these years Previn built up a parallel and equally successful career as a jazz pianist, which gave full scope to his flowingly gifted skills as a keyboard improviser.
Yet however warm the California sunshine and lucrative the Hollywood fees, ambition was brewing in another direction. During national service with an army band in the early 1950s, Previn found himself posted in San Francisco, where the Symphony orchestra’s chief conductor was Pierre Monteux. He took the young musician under his wing. Years later the worldfamous Previn liked to tell how, after one of his early concerts, Monteux asked his conducting protégé if he thought the orchestra had played well. Yes, said Previn, very well. ‘So did I,’ said Monteux. ‘So next time keep out their way.’
During the 1960s Previn, while not abandoning film and jazz, built a reputation as a classical conductor. His first official post was as music director of the Houston Symphony Orchestra in 1967, but by then he was already familiar in the UK. The same year saw the making, with the LSO, of his first recording of Walton’s First Symphony – its remarkable quality owed much to Previn’s hotline to the inf luence of 1920s jazz on the music. (It also demonstrated his understanding that the canniest way to unleash maximum excitement in a performance is, paradoxically, by not rushing.) The following decade saw a hugely successful tenure as the LSO’S principal conductor, where Previn concentrated more on Romantic-era and 20th-century scores than on the earlier classics – an approach which, combined with his mediafriendly image and persona, made him a target for critics who insisted that his brand of musicmaking was innately shallow.
They were missing the point: there are different kinds of depth in classical music, and different ways of searching these out.
From today’s perspective it can be difficult to remember that Vaughan Williams’s music, for instance, was considered to be the preserve of English conductors, until Previn and the
LSO came along with their complete recorded cycle of the symphonies. Sometimes the results disappointed: a low-octane Sea Symphony
shows that the epic spiritual adventures of
Walt Whitman’s poetic world were not Previn territory. Yet who would have thought that a jazz pianist and film-score arranger would come up with the most poignant, searching interpretation of A Pastoral Symphony ever recorded?
One of Previn’s most attractive attributes was that, for all his stellar musical skills, he remained true to himself. American music’s other mastercommunicator, Leonard Bernstein, had an intellectual streak that combined brilliantly with the informal manner of his famous Omnibus TV programmes on classical music. Previn relied more on natural instinct – a quality that could take him straight to the heart of the post-world War I stillness of A Pastoral Symphony’s musical landscape, and which also brought about the enduring success of André Previn’s Music Night.
Classical music today is still trying, with seemingly ever-diminishing success (through no fault of its own), to make inroads into primetime television. Yet André Previn’s Music Night ran for several years on BBC One, and must have done more to generate new audiences for its subjectmatter than almost any equivalent programme since; Previn’s easy-going manner with both guest artists and his audience, combined with the range of repertoire he and the LSO were able to cover, proved a true ‘natural’. Even this achievement remains trumped, of course, by their appearance on the 1971 Morecambe and Wise Christmas Show which explored, in ways previously unknown, ‘Grieg’s Piano Concerto by Grieg’. The passage of time has not diminished the chemistry of Eric Morecambe’s manic aggression, Ernie Wise’s quietly fervent support act, and the ability of ‘Mr Andrew Preview’ to keep, somehow, the straightest of faces. Everyone has their favourite moment: mine is still the realisation that there could be a problem in contacting Grieg about this particular version of his concerto because ‘he might be out skiing’.
When Previn’s time as the LSO’S principal conductor came to an end, he had for several years been music director of the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra, where he fronted the TV series Previn and the Pittsburgh. In 1985 he began what became an unsettled tenure with the LA Philharmonic (he resigned in 1989), and a happier, six-year one as principal conductor of the Royal Philharmonic. My own memories of that time, as a young music critic on a learning curve, include a concert performance of Ravel’s L’heure espagnole which had me regretting (as I still do) that Previn conducted opera less than he might have. In his later years, however, with more time for composing, he completed two full-length operas of his own: A Streetcar Named Desire (based on Tennessee Williams’s play), premiered at San Francisco in 1998, and Brief Encounter (after David Lean’s script for his film) at Houston Opera in 2009. These were the twin peaks of what had by then become a formidable output of classical compositions including 13 concertos, among them a Violin Concerto written for his fifth wife, Anne-sophie Mutter.
True to form, the idiom of Previn the classical composer resists classification. His detractors liked to assert that he was pursuing popular success by exploring a genre combining tonal conformity with film-music gestures. The charge doesn’t stick. At its best, as in the ‘Violin Concerto Anne-sophie’, the music has a wry winsomeness that was genuinely Previn’s own; and he met the dramatic challenge presented by A Streetcar Named Desire with skills relating far more to opera than to the silver screen. He also avoided symphonic ‘cross-over’ in his jazz-playing, remaining drawn to the genre’s keyboard roots as an accompanist (of Ella Fitzgerald and others), in trios and as a soloist. His 1974 television special with jazz’s master-pianist, Oscar Peterson, alternated fascinating conversation (notably about Art Tatum) with a tour de force of twopiano improvising that remains unforgettable. All this, and Previn conducted a bit too. Here was a musician who really did combine about six musical lives into one.
The flame within: Previn at home in 1975; (below left) composing in 1948; (bottom right) the poster for My Fair Lady for which Previn won an Oscar
Musical partners: with violinist Anne-sophie Mutter, 2012
At the piano: Previn in 1968
All the right notes: Previn’s legendary Morecambe and Wise appearance