An­dré Previn

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

BBC Music Magazine - - Contents -

‘‘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

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