André Previn obituary: Conductor who fearlessly crossed musical boundaries

Celebrity musician was married to actress Mia Farrow and violinist Anne-Sophie Mutter

André Previn conducting the London Symphony Orchestra. He was its musical director from 1968 to 1979. Photograph: John Minihan/Getty Images

André Previn conducting the London Symphony Orchestra. He was its musical director from 1968 to 1979. Photograph: John Minihan/Getty Images

 

André Previn
Born: April 6th, 1929
Died: February 28th, 2019

André Previn, who blurred the boundaries between jazz, pop and classical music – and between composing, conducting and performing – in an extraordinarily eclectic, award-filled career, died on Thursday at his home in Manhattan. He was 89.

His death was confirmed by his manager, Linda Petríková.

Previn wrote or arranged the music for dozens of movies and received four Academy Awards, and was nominated for three Oscars in one year alone: 1961, for the scores for Elmer Gantry and Bells Are Ringing and the song Faraway Part of Town from the comedy Pepe.

Audiences knew him also as a jazz pianist who appeared with Ella Fitzgerald, among others, and as a composer who turned out musicals, orchestral works, chamber music, operas and concertos, including several for his fifth wife, violinist Anne-Sophie Mutter. He was also the music director or principal conductor of half a dozen orchestras.

You no longer have to do just Broadway shows, or movies, or conduct – you can do any or all of them

Critics described Previn as a “wunderkind in a turtleneck” and the “Mickey Mouse maestro” when he was in his 20s and 30s. He was often compared to Leonard Bernstein, a similarly versatile conductor, composer and pianist. Time magazine’s headline when Previn became the principal conductor of the London Symphony in 1968 was “Almost like Bernstein”. Newsweek summarised his appointment as music director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic in 1985 as “Bernstein west”.

Media attention

And, like Bernstein, Previn was no stranger to a life of glamour and media attention, particularly when actress Mia Farrow left Frank Sinatra, her husband, and married Previn after an affair that had become grist for the gossip columns.

“See you in the Morning beloved Friend,” Farrow, who was divorced from Previn in 1979, tweeted on Thursday. “May you rest in glorious symphonies.”

Previn himself considered Bernstein an idol. “Bernstein has made it possible not to specialise 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 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 marvelled at his performances. “He has the flow, you know, which a lot of guys don’t have and won’t ever get,” he said.

I never considered myself a jazz musician, but a musician who occasionally played jazz

Previn made recordings with Benny Carter and Mahalia Jackson, and an album of jazz arrangements of songs from My Fair Lady with drummer Shelly Manne and bass player Leroy Vinnegar. (Previn was later the conductor and music supervisor for the film version of My Fair Lady.) He also made two albums with Dinah Shore and recorded a collection of Christmas carols with Julie Andrews and George Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue with Andre Kostelanetz.

But the classical world was never comfortable with his work in jazz, and jazz historian Ted Gioia said Previn had been “something of a populariser of jazz rather than a serious practitioner”.

Previn disdained all the labels. “I never considered myself a jazz musician,” he said in 1986, “but a musician who occasionally played jazz.”

Perfect pitch

He was born Andreas Ludwig Priwin on April 6th, 1929, in Berlin. After his parents realised he had perfect pitch – his father had been an amateur pianist in Berlin – André entered the Berlin Conservatory when he was six. His father, Jacob, a Polish-born lawyer who was Jewish, 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, he studied with composer and conductor Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco, violinist and composer Joseph Achron and composer Ernst Toch. He soon recorded all the four-hand piano music of Mozart with composer Lukas Foss, who was not quite seven years older than Previn.

Previn became a US 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.

Like all Lassie pictures, there was hardly any dialogue, but a lot of barking . . .  and it’s the most inept score you ever heard

A relative worked in the music department at Universal Studios, and 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, a 1946 MGM musical starring Walter Pidgeon. (A young Fidel Castro was an extra.) The script called for concert pianist José Iturbi to play some jazz, but he was uncomfortable improvising and wanted a score to read. Previn went to a jam session, listened and wrote out a piano part for Iturbi to play when the cameras rolled.

MGM took notice and hired 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.

Thumbs-down

Years after its premiere in 1949, he gave the movie a thumbs-down. “Like all Lassie pictures,” he said, “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 realised that 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 did not write classic songs Summertime and I Could Have Danced All Night; rather, he arranged and orchestrated them, creating the soundtrack versions.

Like Bernstein, Previn also tried Broadway. With Alan Jay Lerner, he wrote Coco, a musical about 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.

Andre Previn leads the Oslo Philharmonic Orchestra in a performance at Carnegie Hall, New York, in March 2005. Photograph: Jennifer Taylor/New York Times
Andre Previn leads the Oslo Philharmonic Orchestra in a performance at Carnegie Hall, New York, in March 2005. Photograph: Jennifer Taylor/New York Times

Also like Bernstein, Previn was a crowd-pleaser as a conductor. Five years after his surprise appointment to the London Symphony, 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 programmes 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”.

Morecambe and Wise

This extended to regular appearances on the Morecambe and Wise light entertainment programme as his alter-ego Andrew Preview.

He remained principal conductor of the London Symphony until 1979; he 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 right before taking over in Los Angeles.

Previn resigned the Los Angeles post in 1989, complaining that the orchestra’s managing director, Ernest Fleischmann, had manoeuvred to bring in Esa-Pekka Salonen as his successor. “It has become obvious to me that there is no room for a music director,” Previn said when he quit. Salonen was named music director-designate a few months later.

As he approached 70, 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 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,” he added, “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.”

A recording with the San Francisco cast won the Grand Prix du Disque. Previn also won 10 competitive Grammys from 1958 to 2004, divided evenly between classical and non-classical categories, and a lifetime achievement Grammy in 2010.

The second of his two operas 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.

Toward the end of his life, Previn seemed surprised at the interest in his compositions. “I wrote a string quartet that I very diffidently mentioned to the Emerson Quartet,” he told critic David Patrick Stearns in 2017. “And they said, ‘Where is it?’ I’m not used to that.”

Song cycle

In 2017, Fleming gave several performances of a song cycle he wrote, Lyrical Yeats. “These brief songs display 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 New York Times when Fleming sang them in a solo recital at Carnegie Hall.

In 2018, Mutter played The Fifth Season, for violin and piano, which she and Carnegie Hall had commissioned. She described it as “rather lighthearted”.

This year, Tanglewood had planned events to celebrate Previn’s 90th birthday, including a performance of the violin concerto Anne-Sophie with Mutter and, with Fleming and the Emerson String Quartet, the premiere of Penelope, by Previn and playwright Tom Stoppard. Tanglewood said the events would now be framed as a celebration of his life and work, although it was not immediately clear if Previn had finished Penelope.

André Previn with Eric Morecambe and Ernie Wise on the 1971 Morecambe and Wise Christmas show. Photograph: Trinity Mirror/Mirrorpix/Alamy
André Previn with Eric Morecambe and Ernie Wise on the 1971 Morecambe and Wise Christmas show. Photograph: Trinity Mirror/Mirrorpix/Alamy

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).

Previn’s first wife, Betty Bennett, was a singer he had seen in San Francisco jazz clubs. They had two daughters, Claudia and Alicia, also known as Lovely (who became a violinist in the Irish band In Tua Nua), and divorced in 1958.

His second marriage was to Dory Langan, an MGM lyricist, who, after they separated, recorded several albums as a singer-songwriter under the name Dory Previn, many of them reflections on their breakup and its aftermath. Dory Previn died in 2012.

Their divorce in 1970 was prompted by the well-publicised affair between Previn and Farrow, who had been a friend of Dory’s. Farrow divorced Sinatra in 1968 and married Previn in 1970. They had three children, Matthew and Sascha, who were twins, and Fletcher. They also adopted Summer Song, known as Daisy, and Soon-Yi, who married Woody Allen in 1997.

Violin concerto

Previn’s fourth wife was Heather Haines Sneddon. They had a son, Lukas, in 1984, and divorced in 1999, the year he wrote the violin concerto for Mutter. He and Mutter married in 2002 and divorced in 2006 but continued to perform together.

“You know how people say that their marriage didn’t work?” he said in 2017. “With us, the divorce didn’t work. We call each other every day regardless of where we are. Maybe she’s in China and I’m in Cincinnati, but we find each other. It’s like being very best friends who have a romantic history.”

I have to confess that the man who manufactured harp glissandos for Esther Williams to dive to was actually me

Complete information on his survivors was not immediately available.

Previn seemed puzzled that critics continued to mention his Hollywood past long after he had been focusing on classical music. “I haven’t done anything else since the mid-60s,” he told the New York Times in 1991. “I think there’s a statute of limitations here.

“When I go to Tanglewood to teach, the kids don’t know I ever did anything else,” he continued. “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.”

– New York Times Service