Another Brother for Diversity

By John Hertz: (reprinted from No Direction Home 3) André Previn (1929-2019), Knight Commander of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire (no Commonwealth citizen, he could use the initials K.B.E. but not the honorific Sir), died six weeks before his 90th birthday.  He had come to the United States (1938) from Germany via France; English was his third language, which he learned from comic books and films with a dictionary, like Nathaniel Bowditch while a boy learning Latin to read Newton’s Principia (1687) as I was taught by Carry On, Mr. Bowditch (J. Latham, 1955) in 5th Grade, except young Nat used a Bible.

By 1946 Previn was working for Metro-Goldwin-Mayer and in 1949 earned his first film credit, the music-score for The Sun Comes Up (R. Thorpe dir.; 4th film about the collie Lassie).

While serving with the Army he managed during 1951-1953 to get lessons in conducting from Pierre Monteux. He won four Academy Awards (1958-1959 [Music – Scoring of a Musical Picture, Gigi {V. Minnelli dir. 1958}, Porgy & Bess {O. Preminger dir. 1959}], 1963-1964 [Score – Adaptation or Treatment, Irma la Douce {B. Wilder dir. 1963}, My Fair Lady {G. Cukor dir. 1964}]; eleven nominations; so far the only person to receive three nominations in one year, 1961; the soundtrack albums for Gigi and Porgy & Bess won Grammys too).  Uncontent he developed a new career, or maybe two, in classical music and jazz.  His discography runs into the hundreds.

On piano, with drummer Shelly Manne and bassist Leroy Vinnegar, he recorded Modern Jazz Performances of Songs from “My Fair Lady” (1956, as by “Shelly Manne and His Friends”, Contemporary 3527), the first album consisting entirely of jazz treatments of tunes from a single Broadway musical, the first jazz album to sell a million copies; Lady had then been running on Broadway only five months.  An interview and music-making with Oscar Peterson (1925-2007) for the British Broadcasting Company’s Omnibus (1 Dec 74) was applauded as “one of the greatest hours I ever saw on television” by Marlon Brando. Previn received the Glenn Gould Prize in 2005, the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award in 2010 (eight other Grammys); O.P., the Gould in 1993, Lifetime Achievement in 1997.  Previn with Ella Fitzgerald in 1983 recorded Nice Work If You Can Get It (Pablo Digital D2312140; the jacket by Al Hirschfeld shows P & F and both Gershwin brothers  – for extra credit, where’s H’s Nina [his daughter’s name, which he characteristically worked in]?); five dozen jazz records through Alone (2007; EmArcy, ASIN B01G99X0DY).  Dizzy Gillespie  said, “He has the flow….  A lot of guys, they have the technique, the harmonic sense…. the perfect co-ordination….  But you need something more…. you got to have the flow.”

Previn recorded chamber music of Mozart (1756-1791), Debussy (1862-1918), Ravel (1875-1937).  He recorded Rachmaninov’s Music for Two Pianos (Suite No. 1, 1893; Suite No. 2, 1901) with Vladimir Ashkenazy (Decca 444 845-2, 1974).  He was if anything still more famous as a conductor, inter alia principal conductor of the London Symphony Orchestra 1968-1979; music director of the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra 1975-1985 (a television series Previn and the Pittsburgh ran 1977-1980; three Emmy nominations), of the Los Angeles Philharmonic 1985-1989.  Speaking of Rachmaninov, Ashkenazy and the LSO, all four piano concertos and the Rhapsody on a Theme by Paganini (1934, which some call R’s fifth piano concerto) are on a Decca 3-CD set (ASIN B000076GYF; recorded 1970-1971).  The first complete recording of Rachmaninov’s Symphony No, 2 (1907) was Previn’s in 1970 with the LSO (Warner Classics, ASIN B00000K4FI), which in 2015 Gramophone reviewing all recordings to date called “an interpretation [that] retains its legendary emotional charge” (12 Mar; also noting “Jack Brymer navigated the Adagio’s endless [clarinet] cantilena … with unparalleled subtlety”).

I’ve left a lot out.  Auditioning for George Szell, who with no piano at hand (I wish I’d invented that pun) said “Play on that tabletop”; after a while, Szell directing “Slower; faster; more tender,” Previn said “I’m sorry, Maestro, my tabletop at home has a much different action,” and Szell threw him out.  Comic appearances as “Andrew Preview” on The Morecambe and Wise Christmas Show (BBC television 1971-1972; in 2005 “Taxi drivers still call me ‘Mr. Preview’”).  Career as a composer.  Five marriages, one of which lasting seventeen years produced a Hollywood memoir No Minor Chords (1991) edited by Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis (1929-1994), the fifth though also ending in divorce producing such an ongoing collaboration that Previn joked “the divorce that didn’t work.”

I wish we had more diversity, but we have more than we used to.  Obviousness is relative, and so of course is fame.  You may never have heard of Previn, Gigi, Fitzgerald, chamber music, Gramophone.  It’s still unusual that Previn was active, and achieved, in different media, or idioms, or subcultures, for which he’s now praised – although I’m not here to say he’d have been less praiseworthy if he’d done wonders in only one – and for which he was sometimes then, and is sometimes now, thought questionable.  I try not to make unreasonable assumptions.  Let’s not, any of us.

On February 28th, the day of Previn’s death, The Guardian quoted Andrew Marriner of the LSO (Bymer’s successor as principal clarinet, son of Sir Neville Marriner), “it was the extraordinary sound [Previn] conjured from an orchestra, unmistakably his own, that dazzled….  he drew the players into a deeply moving collaboration.  His touch on the piano in Mozart piano concertos and in chamber music was divine.”  May his memory be for a blessing.

The sweet season that bud and bloom forth brings,
With green hath clad the hill and eke the vale;
The nightingale with feathers new she sings,
The turtledove to mate hath told her tale.
Summer is soon, for every spray now springs,
The hart hath hung his old head on the pale,
The buck in brake his winter coat he flings,
The fishes fleet with new repaired scale,
The adder all her slough away she slings,
The swift swallow pursueth the flies smale,
The busy bee her honey now she mings —
Winter is worn, that was the flowers’ bale:
And thus I see, among these pleasant things
Each care decays, and yet my sorrow springs.
               Henry Howard, Earl of Surrey (1517-1547)

2 thoughts on “Another Brother for Diversity

  1. Some people have denigrated Previn’s talents as a conductor, probably because he also did so many other things. But besides the Rachmaninoff that you mention, and the testimony of Andrew Marriner, I should add a note on his set of the nine symphonies of Ralph Vaughan Williams, generally considered one of the finest sets of those works ever recorded.

  2. Previn’s only real fault as a conductor was his limited repertoire. In his comfort zone, chiefly early twentieth century works (Rachmaninoff, Richard Strauss, Vaughan Williams, Walton, Shostakovich, Gershwin etc.), he was very, very good. Outside his comfort zone he was generally not bad, but not outstanding.

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