Bringing it all Together: André Previn’s Life in Music
In a ‘world of specialisation’ there are few musicians who transcend the single road career, however there are a few exceptions. Perhaps one of the most famed examples is André Previn. Considered one of the most versatile musicians in the world, Previn is capable of navigating countless styles of music that have seen him have a career spanning five decades and excelling in every area that he pursues. A ‘complete’ musician in every sense of the word. His music career is one that many could only dream of.
Film Music Career
Fleeing Europe as a ten year old with his family and arriving in America, Previn soon realised he had an affinity for jazz. So, when the opportunity came to arrange a jazz tune at MGM studios he leapt at the chance. And so began his career as a pianist, arranger, and then later composer at the MGM Hollywood studios. During this time he won four Oscar Awards for his work on various films, including My Fair Lady. Previn has documented his time in Hollywood is his book, No Minor Chords: My Days in Hollywood.
As well as writing a number of scores Previn also wrote the music for a number of songs. His most acclaimed writing partner during this time, Dory, would later become his wife. One of the great songs that he wrote is the witty and charming number, "I Like Myself" along with lyricists Betty Comden and Adolph Green. This tune was used in the film It's Always Fair Weather, produced by MGM studios own 1955.
A few years ago many of Previn's songs were recorded by champion of the Great American Songbook, Michael Feinstein with Previn at the piano. The album You've Had Change of Heart: The Songs of Andre Previn.
More Songs ...
Realising this was not the place to do ‘serious’ music, Previn left Hollywood to pursue a career as a classical musician at age 30. In his late thirties he took a gamble and left the studio system that he had been so involved in. It was time to pursue a career, against all odds, on the classical circuit as a conductor.
During Previn’s tenure with the London Symphony Orchestra he increased their profile ten fold. He recalls one evening that a group of them came to this hotel room when he was guest conductor for them and they asked him to be their principal. He was delighted at this chance the pairing of Previn and the LSO was one of genius and as a result the profile of both the orchestra and Previn grew. During his time there he was able to explore the English repertoire that he loved and he recorded works by Elgar, Britten and most famously the complete Symphonies of Vaughan Williams, to critical acclaim. He also put the LSO on the map and made classical music accessible to the broader public through the BBC Television program, Andre Previn’s Music Night, which ran from 1971-1979. During this time Previn demonstrated classical music in a fun and engaging way (much like Bernstein had done on television in the 1960s). This created wider engagement with more audiences and enhanced the profile of the orchestra and classical music. Here is performing Mozart’s Piano Concerto K.466 on the television program.
Previn also made a stand out recording of Rachmaninoff's Symphony No.2 in E minor. The Adagio here is stunningly rendered and the orchestral players of the LSO along with Previn, bring out out the textural qualities of each musical line as they fold and coalesce with each other in moment son pure musical radiance.
Further appeal came when Previn appeared on the Morecambe and Wise Christmas specialof 1977 where he was to conduct Grieg’s piano concerto. He was introduced as “Andrew Preview”. This fast became one of the most famous musical comedy sketches in history and gave the London Symphony Orchestra mass appeal to many new audiences. Previn is now Conductor Emeritus with the London Symphony Orchestra.
During his tenure with the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra Previn hosted a television series Previn and the Pittsburgh in which he would talk to the audiences about the pieces the orchestra was performing or undertake interviews with guest musicians. Perhaps most notably was Previn's appearance with jazz pianist, Oscar Peterson. During the broadcast Previn and Peterson discuss the performance styles of jazz pianists and also performed a piano duet, to much acclaim.
Previn would go on to record an instrumental version of My Fair Lady, which was the first jazz record to sell a million copies and has never been out of print. This paved the way for many more instrumental recordings of film soundtracks. Previn made several notable recordings with the David Rose orchestra, Secret Songs for Young Lovers (1959) Like Blue (1960) . They speak to Previn’s place in music, a bridge between two styles; playing jazz piano with strings. After a long break from jazz, Previn returned to the medium in the 1980s and recorded After Hours with Joe Pass and Ray Brown and since then has released a number of jazz recordings, including We Got Rhythm: A Gershwin Songbook ,with bassist David Finck.
In 1993 he teamed up with soprano, Kiri Te Kanawa to record the ‘crossover’ album, Sidetracks. It features Kiri Te Kanawa singing jazz repertoire wiht Andre Previn at the piano, Ray Brown on bass and Mundell Lowe on guitar. This fasctiancsting documentary charts the progress of this recording and how it all came together. This recording concept demonstrates Previn’s link between the jazz and classical worlds and without him on this recording it may have been a failed project. Previn, Brown and Mundell had worked together since Previn’s return to the jazz world in the late 1980s and recorded a number of trio albums together, including Old Friends and Uptown.
Previn is a Romanticist at heart and his composing style is deeply rooted in the idea of the Romantic tradition (his music is an expression of emotion and thoughts), with tinges of jazz and modernism. Previn is quoted as having said " I don't write things that are wildly, abstractly atonal." In an interview with New Music Box in 2015 the interview said: "John Harbison said you write these big pieces, and all the things that have happened in the last 50 years are absent, like they never happened,” Previn admits. “I said, ‘I can’t explain that. I don’t know.’” For me, music has to be an emotion and my emotions don’t react well to mathematical formulae."(http://www.newmusicbox.org/articles/andre-previn-how-lucky-i-am-now/) . Previn's music is harmonically rich, and there is a clear sense of melody, texture and lyricism. Previn also prefers to write music for specific ensembles or players, rather than just writing for the sake of it.
Previn composed a number of works of violinist Anne-Sophie Mutter, most strikingly the marvellous violin concerto, Anne Sophie. recording was released on the Deutsche Gramophone label. Previn describes the first movement of the Violin Concerto as ‘the most lush and conservative of the three.’ What I love about hearing this opening statement is that I am instantly reminded of Previn’s theme for the film, The Four Horseman of the Apocalypse ( Whilst not exactly the same thematic material, there are similar orchestral shadings and similar motivic ideas, as though it could have bene paraphrased from this earlier work. This makes a lovely connection to the quotation from T.S Elliot that is included in the third movement of the violin concerto:
We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
will be to arrive where we started
and know the the place for the first time.
I like the idea that Previn has returned to something in this later work, whether this might be a conscious or subconscious decision.
For Anne-Sophie Mutter Previn also composed Tango, Song and Dance, a ‘light-hearted’ piece for piano and violin which the two premiered and recorded together.
In the 1980s Previn composed a piano concerto for Vladimir Ashkenazy, which has jazz overtones, moments of witticism and delightful ideas mixed with fiery musical ideas, reminiscent of Prokofiev. Diversions, a four movement orchestral showpiece was composed in 1999 in response to a commission by the Vienna Philharmonic specifying that the work, “not be for an outsized orchestra, and that it not be too intensely profound.” The resultant piece is, in effect, a concerto for orchestra which highlights various principal players and relies on distinct compartmentalization of sections. The title is appropriate when one considers the dual nature in the piece which is both light and substantial, tuneful yet atmospheric. The central Passacaglia pays homage to Brahms, Shostakovich and Britten, composers who loved the form.
These days he spends most of his time composing. He recently said in an interview “I’m not worried about if people will be playing my pieces in many years, I’m just happy they are playing them [next] Wednesday.” His opera, A Streetcar Named Desire was commissioned by the San Fransisco Opera and was well received. He followed this up a few years later with his second opera, Brief Encounter.
In 2008 Previn was commissioned by the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra (of whom he was the music director from 1976-1984) to compose a Harp Concerto for their principal harpist, Gretchen Van Hoesen (Previn appointed the young harpist during his tenure as the music director).
Previn’s Trio for Piano, Oboe and Bassoon is a delightful tour de force, that mixes 20th century harmonies with tinges of jazz and delicate melodies.
On a more local level, Previn’s piece for Wind Orchestra was recently been recorded on the debut album of the Sydney Conservatorium Wind Symphony, Celebrare features Previn’s piece No Strings Attached , a substantial contribution to the wind repertoire.
This is a man who has had a turn at almost every facet of the music industry. His original music makes an important statement, a reflection of his personality and his style. It is music that appeals to all audiences, not matter their tastes. His music brings it all together.
A shorter version of this article appears in the January 2017 edition of Fine Music Magazine http://www.finemusicfm.com
My Fair Lady
Trio for Oboe, Bassoon and Piano
Andre Previn and Oscar Peterson
Andre Previn Documentary "All the Right Notes"