Friday, March 1, 2019

Remembering André Previn

In those pre-historic days of the late 1970’s, when dinosaurs roamed the earth, and when serious music was very much part of television programming, I came upon this wonderful series of programmes called “Previn and the Pittsburgh”. I watched those shows and marveled not only at the beauty of the music being presented, but also at the incredible talents of André Previn.

When I learned of the death of Mr. Previn, I realized that even though I had never seen him perform in person, his music making loomed large over my formative years as a music lover and student of music.

Other than Leonard Bernstein, I cannot think of a musician who was so multi-talented, and whose career touched upon so many facets of music – composer, conductor, pianist (classical and jazz), educator, and presenter of music. 

Previn started in Hollywood as an arranger and composer when he was sixteen, out of economic necessity more than anything else, and ended up composing and arranging music for some fine (and some not so fine) films – Invitation to the Dance,GigiPorgy and BessIrma La Douce,My Fair Lady, and Thoroughly Modern Mille, to name just a few – winning four Oscars for his work. 

At the same time, he discovered jazz, and became a fine pianist in that genre. One of my favourite Previn albums includes the “My Fair Lady” record, made within a single evening, and became a very big seller (for a jazz record). He “jammed” with such luminaries as Ray Brown, Red Mitchell, Bill Perkins, Jerry Mulligan and Shelly Manne.

He played chamber music with musicians from the MGM studio orchestra, and studied conducting with Pierre Monteux. He conducted the studio orchestra in his own film compositions, but also had the occasional opportunity to conduct “serious” repertoire. In one of his first rehearsals with the studio orchestra, the musicians decided to test him by tuning a semitone lower. Previn heard it and said nothing. Right before he gave the downbeat, he said, “Everyone, transpose a semitone up.” The musicians were impressed.

When he tired of the lack of challenge in film work, and began to shift his focus to conducting full time, all the critics held his years in Hollywood against him. Previn said that all the reviews would begin with the words, “Last night, Hollywood’s André Previn conducted….” He often said that critics would have forgiven him if he had been a serial killer, but not for having been a “film composer”. 

Gradually, Previn won them over as he gained experience as a conductor. He took over the Houston Symphony Orchestra briefly, and then there were those honeymoon years as principal conductor of the London Symphony Orchestra, where he made some of his finest and most memorable recordings. Then there were tenures in Pittsburgh and Los Angeles, both of which ended unhappily. In his last years, he devoted his time mostly to the occasional guest conducting stints, and to composing. I was very much looking forward to his scheduled appearance with the Seattle Symphony, but he had to cancel that concert because of ill health. 

I believe his television programmes on music can be judged the same way as Bernstein’s work on television. He talked about music intelligently, without talking down to the audience. I am certain that many people owed their interest in music because of Previn’s programmes. His one appearance on the British television show of Morecambe and Wise (“Mr. Preview!”) is still remembered and talked about today.

Previn often talked about composing as something he could do easily, because of his training in Hollywood. He often said that he could compose “with the World Series on”, but that he didn't expect his music to last. I believe he underestimated his work as a composer. His film scores rank along those of Korngold, Rózsa, Walton, and Hermann. And I particularly love his guitar concerto, written for John Williams, and his piano concerto, written for Vladimir Ashkenazy. In his later years, his operatic adaptation of “A Streetcar Named Desire” contains some truly memorable music. 

I will always be grateful to Previn for his many wonderful recordings, introducing me to works that remain close to me today. I love Rachmaninoff’s second symphony because of his great recording with the London Symphony Orchestra, the first time the work was recorded uncut. His recording of Elgar’s Enigma Variationsis still one of the finest in the catalogue. I still adore his Vaughan Williams records, especially the one of the fifth symphony, where the feeling of “Englishness” overflows in the slow movement. His Mahler fourth introduced me to that charming work; I wore out the LP listening to his recording of the incidental music to Mendelssohn’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.” There were also albums where Previn doubled as pianist and conductor – Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue and Concert in F, many Mozart concerti, and lots of chamber music. 

In his witty and clever memoirs, No Minor Chords – My Days in Hollywood, Previn said, “Since leaving Hollywood, I have had the healthy and sobering experience of constantly working with music that is invariably better than any performance of it can be.” Using that as a yardstick, I think Previn had had a pretty rewarding life.

So rest in peace, André Previn. Thank you for all you had done for music, and, as Bob Hope said, “Thanks for the memories.”

Patrick May

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