The conductor, pianist and composer was 89
The Economist  | Print edition | Obituary | Mar 7th 2019
WHEN CRITICS had a go at André Previn in his heyday, the word “showman” was an easy gibe. The maestro seemed bigger than the music, and that was no surprise. After all, his background was in Hollywood scores, turning out reams of stuff for Lassie to bark at or Debbie Reynolds to talk over. Some of that glitz and schmaltz seemed to hang around in his gentle American voice, as well as in his soft spot for Rachmaninov and the too-lush sound of his string sections. In his spare time, for many years, he played jazz with his own trio in smoky dives. He liked television and was often on it in Britain in the 1970s, presenting orchestral music as light entertainment and even as comedy. The conductor at various times of several of the world’s great orchestras, the London Symphony, the London Philharmonic, the Pittsburgh Symphony, the Vienna Philharmonic, took a lifetime to shed that label of lightweight Los Angeles Romanticism.
It clung to him well before he arrived in London in 1968, with his dark mop of hair, mandarin jackets, Swinging Sixties ways and the air of a casual, if reserved, film star. He had been fired as music director of the Houston Symphony partly for parading round town in blue jeans with Mia Farrow, an elfin actress who became his third wife, while he was still married to his second, Dory, who poured out desperate songs about him. There were more wives, many flings. For years the press swarmed after him like flies.
Yet he was more than capable of defending himself. On the subject of the women, they were all the best of friends. On taking classical music down market, the figures spoke for themselves. When he conducted the Houston Symphony in its dollar concerts at the Sam Houston Coliseum, he would pack 12,000 in. Each time he hosted “André Previn’s Music Night” on the BBC, chatting informally to the audience since he was sitting in their living rooms, he probably drew in more people in a week than the LSO, his chief orchestra, had managed in 65 years of performances. And when he appeared on “Morecambe and Wise” with the LSO as “Andrew Preview,” letting Eric Morecambe lift him by the lapels for questioning the comedian’s “playing” of Grieg’s Piano Concerto, he made the orchestra so famous that it was saved from bankruptcy, and himself so instantly recognisable that taxi drivers hailed him with “Hallo, Mr Preview!” This made him very happy.
As for Hollywood, he had loved it. His Jewish family had fled to Los Angeles from Berlin, via Paris, in 1938 when he was ten; Hollywood was where he plunged into life. Who wouldn’t like to go to work each day in glorious sunshine, with all those pretty girls, and noodle a little Jerome Kern at parties? When he was 17 Ava Gardner tried to seduce him; two years later, he was confident enough to try the same with her. (Result: zero.) He won four Oscars for his film music, which included “Gigi” and “My Fair Lady” and was nominated for nine more. If he could have kept laughing at the idiocies of producers who demanded, like Irving Thalberg, that “no music in an MGM film is to contain a minor chord”, he could have spent the rest of his career in that swimming-pool life.
And it could never have satisfied him. For under that peripheral glamour he was deeply committed to music for its own sake, a commitment he entered into at five, by asking his father for piano lessons. At six, he was in the Conservatory. Piano remained the deepest part of his multi-layered career. . .
The definite shift to conducting came in 1968, at 39 when the LSO recruited him for a spell that lasted 11 years. . .
But music directing too had its infuriating sides: politicking and socialising, ladies’ committees, truculent boards, shop stewards. None of that had anything to do with the music, which always stayed several steps ahead of him. He could spend his life chasing a great symphony, and never catch up. No performance could ever be as good as the work itself. Straggling behind, he composed many pieces of his own: sonatas, trios and songs, with a violin concerto for his fifth wife, the violinist Anne-Sophie Mutter. In older age, as in his Hollywood film-score years, he would pick up his pencil every day. It was not a question of waiting for the muse to kiss him, though that would have been nice. He wanted to understand the engineering of perfection: how Debussy could write “L’après midi d’un faune” without a single note put in for show; how the beginning of Brahms’s Fourth Symphony could reduce him to tears; how the unsurpassable serenity of the second movement of Beethoven’s Violin Concerto could change the way he saw the world. Before something as beautiful and frightening as music, he could only efface himself.
This article appeared in the Obituary section of the print edition under the headline “Maestro and music”
* * * * *