André Previn, 88, Composer, Conductor, Arranger, Pianist and Author, has Died
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28 February 2019

André Previn, 88, Composer, Conductor, Arranger, Pianist and Author, has Died

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COMPOSER, CONDUCTOR, ARRANGER, PIANIST, AUTHOR AND POLYMATH—André Previn lived numerous lives, winding up with one of the most consistently surprising careers of any modern musician. His story was that of the immigrant youngster who came to America, threw himself into its melting pot and succeeded perhaps even beyond his own expectations. A Kennedy Center Honor, an honorary knighthood, the Austrian and German Crosses of Merit, a Glenn Gould Prize, four Oscars and eleven Grammys made up just a fraction of the honors he received over the years.

A man of enormous wit and personal charm, Previn cast his spell over numerous celebrated women, resulting in a string of marriages and high-profile affairs. His skill with the English language (not to mention the mellifluous timbre of his speaking voice) made him a popular guest at parties and on talk shows. The Previn personality is on full display in the excellent video documentary André Previn: A Bridge Between Two Worlds, which enlisted two of his ex-wives—Anne-Sophie Mutter and Mia Farrow—to interview him onscreen. 

Born in Berlin in either 1929 or 1930 (sources vary, but he insisted the latter was correct), he and his family were forced to flee the Nazis in 1939. The Previns landed in Los Angeles, where André’s uncle Charles was the head music director for Universal Studios. Previn often claimed to have learned much of his English from the comic strips; nevertheless, he went on to write two books and edit three more. While still in his teens, he made his first commercial recording; at sixteen he was signed by MGM as a studio composer, conductor and pianist. He would go on to write more than forty-five film scores, including Bad Day at Black Rock, The Catered Affair, Elmer Gantry and Inside Daisy Clover. His proficiency in all forms of music, including jazz (he was selected as DownBeat’s 1958 Personality of the Year in Motion Picture Music), kept him in demand. Jazz great Dizzy Gillespie once said of him, “He has the flow, you know?”

Previn composed several songs for films and eventually wrote his first Broadway musical, Coco, with Alan Jay Lerner as lyricist. Starring Katharine Hepburn, it opened in 1969 and was not warmly received by the critics, but Hepburn’s drawing power guaranteed sold-our houses for eight months. (Hepburn was replaced by Danielle Darrieux, but the show closed soon after.) Previn later dismissed it as a miserable experience, largely because of Hepburn’s lack of musicality. In 1974, Previn collaborated with famed lyricist Johnny Mercer on the score for the West End musical The Good Companions.

As befitted his protean talents, Previn produced music so varied that it resisted easy description or categorization. He was infinitely adaptable to a wide range of moods, styles and genres. The show-biz brassiness of the song “You’re Gonna Hear From Me,” from Inside Daisy Clover, was diametrically opposed to the repetitive, childlike melancholy of his hit theme for Valley of the Dolls. His score for the Bette Davis shocker Dead Ringer is a triumph of campy gruesomeness, dominated by a creepy, spidery harpsichord motif. And, critical reaction aside, Coco turned out to have a tunefully elegant score, once Darrieux took it over from Hepburn. (Later, Previn would recount that when he and Alan Jay Lerner attended Darrieux’s first performance, Lerner turned to him and said, “My god, we’ve written a musical!”)

Asked by Variety whether there was any genre he couldn’t handle, Previn answered dryly, “I’m not so good with Hawaiian music.” Previn’s classical activities included not only his work as a pianist—often forming part of a trio or accompanying such singers as Elisabeth Söderström, Janet Baker and Barbara Bonney—but conducting. He made his debut as a conductor in 1962 with the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra, and from 1967 to 1969 he was conductor-in-chief for the Houston Symphony Orchestra. In addition, he held the post of principal conductor for the London Symphony Orchestra (1968–79), music director for the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra (1976–84) and music director for the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra (1985–88). From 1985 to 1989, he was music director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra, but he walked out of his contract with two years remaining due to repeated clashes with  Ernest Fleischman, the orchestra’s volatile executive vice-president and managing director. Among Previn’s frequent television appearances was the 1977 PBS series Previn and the Pittsburgh

Orchestra members almost invariably loved working with him. He attributed that to his time spent in the film studios with Hollywood musicians. “What I learned from a practical point of view in Hollywood was, I think, enormous,” he told OPERA NEWS in 1998. “I learned what an orchestra is capable of. I also learned how much you could inflict on an orchestra without having them resent you. My rehearsals tend to be as fast as I can do them, but thorough. And I find that the periphery can be lighthearted. So I don’t have any great displays of authority and screaming at rehearsals.” 

1998 saw the birth of Previn’s first opera, A Streetcar Named Desire. (“It’s never too late to try something new,” he remarked at the time.) With a libretto by Philip Littell based on the Tennessee Williams play, it received its world premiere at San Francisco Opera with a starry cast—Renée Fleming, Rodney Gilfry, Elizabeth Futral and Anthony Dean Griffey. Subsequently the opera was mounted in New Orleans, San Diego, Washington, Los Angeles, Austin, Chicago and St. Louis, as well as in Europe in Strasbourg, London, Dublin, Vienna (Theater an der Wien), Turin, Tokyo, Sydney and Melbourne. 2009 saw the premiere of his second opera, Brief Encounter, based on Noël Coward’s Still Life and his screenplay for the classic 1945 David Lean film. Commissioned by Houston Grand Opera, its libretto was by John Caird, and it starred Elizabeth Futral and Nathan Gunn as the central pair of thwarted adulterous lovers. 

Opera did not bring out the best in Previn. His Streetcar score had a meandering quality when the composer hewed too closely to the original Williams dialogue; when the libretto blossomed out into Philip Littell’s original arias, so did Previn’s music. Brief Encounter received good-to-mixed reviews, but, perhaps because it lacked Streetcar’s name recognition, it has not shown much staying power. 

Married and divorced five times, Previn appeared frequently in the gossip columns. His second marriage, to lyricist Dory Previn—with whom he collaborated on several of his thirteen Oscar-nominated film scores—ended in 1969 when he began a relationship with Mia Farrow. He and Farrow subsequently married, had three children together and adopted three more. Previn’s first marriage was to jazz singer Betty Bennett, his fourth to Heather Sneddon and his fifth to violinist Anne-Sophie Mutter. Although their union lasted only four years, they remained close friends. In all, he had ten children, four of them adopted. —Eric Myers 

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