B1371. (ANDRÉ PREVIN) MICHAEL FREEDLAND. André Previn. London, Century, 1991. 312pp. Index; Photos; DJ. - 0-7126-3503-3
“André Previn, who blurred the boundaries between jazz, pop and classical music, wrote or arranged the music for several dozen movies and was the only person in the history of the Academy Awards to receive three nominations in one year (1961, for the scores for ELMER GANTRY and BELLS ARE RINGING and the song ‘Faraway Part of Town’ from the comedy PEPE. But audiences also knew him as a jazz pianist who appeared with Ella Fitzgerald, among others, and as a composer who turned out musicals, orchestral works, chamber music, two operas and several concertos for his fifth wife, the violinist Anne-Sophie Mutter. Mr. Previn was also the music director or principal conductor of a half-dozen orchestras.
Mr. Previn himself considered Bernstein an idol. ‘Bernstein has made it possible not to specialize in one area of music’, he said. ‘You no longer have to do just Broadway shows, or movies, or conduct - you can do any or all of them’. And Mr. Previn did. In the 1960s he appeared in sold-out classical and jazz concerts. Sometimes he combined genres, playing a concerto before intermission and jazz with a trio after. Dizzy Gillespie marveled at his performances: ‘He has the flow, you know, which a lot of guys don’t have and won’t ever get’.
Mr. Previn - born Andreas Ludwig Prewin on April 6, 1929, in Berlin - entered in the Berlin Conservatory when he was 6, after his parents realized that he had perfect pitch. His father, Jacob, a Polish-born lawyer who was Jewish and had been an amateur pianist in Berlin, moved the family to Paris in 1938 to escape the Nazis. André studied with Marcel Dupré at the Paris Conservatory for about a year before the family left for Los Angeles. There, Mr. Previn studied with the composer and conductor Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco, the violinist and composer Joseph Achron and the composer Ernst Toch. He soon recorded all the four-hand piano music of Mozart with the composer Lukas Foss, who was not quite seven years older than he was. Mr. Previn became an American citizen in 1943, and in 1950 he was drafted into the Army and served with the Sixth Army Band. He also studied conducting in San Francisco with Pierre Monteux, whom he later followed at the London Symphony.
A relative worked in the music department at Universal Studios, and Mr. Previn wrote music for movies even before he went into the Army. As a senior in high school, he was called in to help with HOLIDAY IN MEXICO, an MGM musical that starred Walter Pidgeon and in which Fidel Castro was an ‘extra’. The script called for the concert pianist Jose Iturbi to play some jazz, but he was uncomfortable improvising and wanted a score to read. Mr. Previn went to a jam session, listened and wrote out a piano part for Mr. Iturbi to play when the cameras rolled. MGM took notice and hired Mr. Previn to compose and conduct the music for THE SUN COMES UP, starring Lassie and the once-illustrious actress Jeanette MacDonald, who was allergic to dogs. ‘Go figure that billing’, he once said.
Years after its premiere in 1949, he gave the movie a thumbs-down: ‘Like all Lassie pictures, there was hardly any dialogue, but a lot of barking. I thought it was easy, but I have since put myself through the wringer of watching it on a television rerun, and it’s the most inept score you ever heard’. But front-office executives realized that Mr. Previn could handle the deadlines that went with studio work, and they put him on what he called ‘an endless stream of cheap, fast movies’. Not all his assignments fit that description. He collected Oscars for scoring GIGI (1959), PORGY AND BESS (1960), IRMA LA DOUCE (1964) and MY FAIR LADY (1965). He arranged and orchestrated them, creating the versions heard on the soundtracks. Like Bernstein, he also tried Broadway. With Allan Jay Lerner, he wrote COCO, a musical about the designer Coco Chanel that starred Katharine Hepburn and ran for 329 performances in 1969 and 1970. He also wrote the music for THE GOOD COMPANIONS, a musical with lyrics by Johnny Mercer that ran for 252 performances in London in 1974.
Also like Bernstein, he was a crowd-pleaser as a conductor. Five years after his surprise appointment in London, the British magazine NEW STATESMAN complained that he had given the orchestra ‘a strong American accent: the big-screen sound, rich, loud and brilliant’. But it said his programs on the BBC - which prefigured by a few years the American public-television series ‘Previn and the Pittsburgh’, broadcast when he was the music director of the Pittsburgh Symphony - had ‘clearly widened his box-office appeal’. ‘Whereas Boulez looks boring and Boult looks bored’, the magazine said, referring to the prominent conductors Pierre Boulez and Adrian Boult, ‘Previn always seems to be enjoying himself’. He remained principal conductor of the London Symphony until 1979 and was also the principal conductor of the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra from 1985 to 1988. In the United States, he held the Pittsburgh job from 1976 to 1984 and became music director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic in 1985.
As he approached 70, Mr. Previn turned to opera, writing A STREETCAR NAMED DESIRE to a libretto by Philip Littell based on the Tennessee Williams play. Renée Fleming sang the role of Blanche DuBois in the premiere with the San Francisco Opera in 1998, with Mr. Previn on the podium. Bernard Holland, reviewing the performance for THE NEW YORK TIMES, wrote that ‘it sings very well’. ‘There are angry clashes of harmony and key, many Straussian gestures, sweet-as-honey popular melody and the kinds of corporate noodling and mumbling among the strings native to a Ligeti or a Penderecki’, Mr. Holland said. A recording with the San Francisco cast won the Grand Prix du Disque. Mr. Previn also won a Grammy Award for lifetime achievement in 2010. He also won 10 competitive Grammys between 1958 and 2004, divided evenly between classical and nonclassical categories. His other opera was BRIEF ENCOUNTER (2007), with a libretto by John Caird based on Noël Coward’s screenplay for the 1945 David Lean film by that name.
In 2017, Ms. Fleming gave several performances of a song cycle he wrote, ‘Lyrical Yeats’. ‘These brief songs display Mr. Previn’s keen ear for the telling detail, for musical gestures that set a mood or conjure an image’, Corinna da Fonseca-Wollheim wrote in THE TIMES when Ms. Fleming sang them in a solo recital at Carnegie Hall recital. In 2018, Ms. Mutter played ‘The Fifth Season’, which she and Carnegie Hall had commissioned. She described it as ‘rather lighthearted’. ‘The Fifth Season’ was ‘not a sonata’, she said, ‘but a one-movement work with jazz and Gypsy-like rhythmical elements - which starts with a fully improvisational cadenza’.
This year, Tanglewood had planned several events to celebrate Mr. Previn after he turned 90, including a performance with Ms. Mutter of the violin concerto and, with Ms. Fleming and the Emerson quartet, the premiere of ‘Penelope’, by Mr. Previn and the playwright Tom Stoppard.
Mr. Previn wrote several books, including ORCHESTRA (1979), a depiction of the lives of orchestral musicians, and a memoir of his movie experiences, NO MINOR CHORDS: MY DAYS IN HOLLYWOOD (1991).
‘When I go to Tanglewood to teach, the kids don’t know I ever did anything else. Sometimes they see a movie on the late, late show, and they say, ‘Who is that?’ And then I have to confess that the man who manufactured harp glissandos for Esther Williams to dive to was actually me’.”
- James Barron, THE NEW YORK TIMES, 28 Feb., 2019