About the Composer

When André Previn died in late February at age 89, his obituary in The New York Times began by stating that he “blurred the boundaries between jazz, pop and classical music, and between composing, conducting and performing.” Versatility at a high level was the hallmark of André Previn’s career. Perhaps no one in the modern era has cast a net over a wider musical range and done it all so well.

He was born Andreas Ludwig Priwin in Berlin in 1929. His barrister father, a Polish-born Jew and an amateur pianist, recognized his son’s perfect pitch, drilled him after dinner on the classical music canon, and enrolled him in the piano program at the Berlin Conservatory at age six. In 1938, the family fled the Nazis, moving first to Paris and then to Los Angeles. Through a family connection, the precocious young musician, now André Previn, got a job at
Universal Studios, and later MGM, writing and arranging movie music. Falling for the jazz piano of Art Tatum, he played jazz on the side. All this while attending Beverly Hills High School.

The movie business jump started Previn’s career. “It taught me things I couldn’t have possibly learned anywhere else. How to write quickly. There’s an old joke: Do you want it good or do you want it Thursday? It doesn’t hurt to learn that.”

Before it was over, he’d written 45 orchestral film scores, been nominated for 11 Oscars, and won four of the gold statutes for arranging and writing the scores for “Gigi,” “Porgy and Bess,” “Irma la Douce” and “My Fair Lady.” For Previn, working at MGM was Valhalla. “If you’re a young man and you drive through those studio gates, it was heaven. What could you possibly want that was better than that?”

On the jazz front, he played with Ella Fitzgerald, Oscar Peterson, and Gerry Mulligan in the vibrant West Coast jazz scene. His album of arrangements of “My Fair Lady” songs — with Previn on piano, Shelly Manne on drums and Leroy Vinnegar on bass — was the first jazz album to sell one million copies. Is there anything the multi-talented Previn couldn’t do? “I’m not so good with Hawaiian music,” he quipped to the trade newspaper Variety.

For all his success, Hollywood eventually felt like a treadmill. “I was very successful and made a lot of money,” he said, “but I didn’t think the atmosphere was conducive to doing a lot of serious work.” Stationed in San Francisco in the Army during the Korean War, he resurrected his interest in classical music and asked Pierre Monteux, music director of the San Francisco Symphony, for conducting advice. After brief stints leading the St. Louis and Houston orchestras, and to the surprise of the classical music world, he succeeded Monteux as principal conductor of the venerable and very conservative London Symphony Orchestra in 1968. He was 39 years old.

Skeptics who grumbled about hiring a boyish Hollywood movie arranger as director of one of the world’s most prestigious orchestras were soon silenced. Previn’s 11 years at the LSO were a huge success. He brought a touch of glamour and his musicianship was first rate. His love of modern British composers — Vaughan Williams, Britten, Walton — endeared him to the London orchestra. Like his idol, Leonard Bernstein at the New York Philharmonic, Previn became
a popular television personality. His weekly prime time BBC program, “André Previn’s Music Night” ran for several years, explaining the rudiments of music to a mass audience and boosting sales of the orchestra’s recordings, much of it new repertoire. It made Previn a household name in Britain and the LSO an even more prestigious name in the classical music scene.

Musicians loved the conducting habits Previn honed in the movie studios — speedy, adaptable, efficient rehearsals with no screaming from the podium. And he was quick to laugh. His sense of humor cemented him for all time in British popular culture when he appeared as “guest conductor Andrew Preview” on a wildly popular TV show featuring the comedy duo Morecambe and Wise. The hilarious episode in which Grieg’s Piano Concerto is butchered can by seen on
YouTube and is not to be missed.

In his conductor role, Previn recalls an early lesson from his mentor, Maestro Monteux, who asked after Previn conducted a Haydn symphony how he thought the orchestra played. “I thought they played very well,” Previn said. “So did I,” replied Monteux. “Next time, don’t get in their way.” The LSO “took a huge risk and I was very happy it all worked out,” Previn says. After departing, the orchestra named him both Conductor Laureate and Conductor Emeritus.

Next, there were music director jobs in Pittsburgh for eight years and back in London with the Royal Philharmonic, followed by a short-lived return to California in 1984 as conductor of the Los Angeles Philharmonic. He quit after a feud with the orchestra’s managing director.

Composing was at the center of Previn’s efforts in recent years. His work includes overtures, tone poems, a symphony, sonatas, concertos and songs. There are compositions for chamber groups and solo instruments, including several concertos for his fifth wife, the German violinist, Anne-Sophie Mutter. (Previn’s love life was an inescapable part of his public persona. His wives included the actress Mia Farrow, who left Frank Sinatra to marry the composer.) An unusual collaborative work was “Every Good Boy Deserves Favour,” a play about Soviet dissidents written by Tom Stoppard. It starred Ben Kingsley and Ian McKellen
and was performed with orchestra while the actors wandered amongst the musicians on stage.

He wrote two operas, “A Streetcar Named Desire,” adapted from the Tennessee Williams novel, and “Brief Encounter,” based on a Noel Coward screenplay. A third opera, “Penelope,” written for soprano Renée Fleming and the Emerson String Quartet, was scheduled to debut this year at Tanglewood in Massachusetts for Previn’s 90th birthday.

Previn said he started with a great asset when he sat down to compose. “It helps because I’ve conducted so much. The sound of the instruments and the sound of combination of instruments is not alien to me at all. And I like that.”

- Performance notes by Eugene Carlson