Monday, March 11, 2019

André Previn - Maestro and Music

© -  Steven A. Cerra, copyright protected; all rights reserved.

“An enigmatic fellow, Andre Previn. Intensely private, yet given to scandal and something of a showman...., one of the most thoughtful and sensitive classical conductors of his day yet widely assumed to be a sell-out populist, the finest interpreter of Gershwin's piano music with orchestra, and yet almost completely forgotten for his first love ... jazz.

A concentrated period of activity for Contemporary Records in the 1950s, and whal a gift he must have been for the label, turning up immaculately rehearsed, straight, clean, unimpeachably professional, and then laying down first-take performances one after the other. One suspects there never will be a box of Andre Previn out-takes and alternatives, and yet there's nothing unswinging or unspontaneous about any of these performances.

The label quickly cottoned on to the show-based and songbook approaches as quick and effective ways of selecting and theming material. Gigi is predictably skittish and playful, though not without its moments of tenderness. Pal Joey offers more of real musical substance, including the deathless 'I Could Write A Book' and the less well -known 'What Is A Man?'. The Plays Songs by Vernon Duke portfolio is the only one on which the pianist's classical training becomes evident, turning 'Cabin In The Sky' and 'Autumn In New York' into tiny symphonic statements and 'April In Paris' into an elegant, impressionistic tone-poem. Double Play! cast him in a more straight-ahead formula and repertoire, and in retrospect it almost seems the best of the bunch, because the most uncomplicatedly jazz-driven.

Previn's renaissance as a jazz pianist [in the 1990s] was hailed as a return to an old love, but it was also, of course, the resort of a man who had been bruised by orchestral politics more subtly cut-throat than anything the Medicis would have dared. These don't quite have the bounce and the freshness of old and very quickly sound formulaic….

We Got Rhythm: A Gershwin Songbook [Deutsche Grammophon] date is interesting in that it followed an all-Mozart programme Previn was conducting at Tanglewood. The next day he and that fine bassist David Finck simply wandered down to the Florence Gould Auditorium in Seiji Ozawa Hall, Lenox, Massachusetts, got up a pot of coffee and started running through some tunes. Here and there Previn doesn't sound note-perfect, but he has the musical nous to profit from occasional slips, and the best of these tracks are quite exceptional. Edward Jablonski's liner-notes on the individual songs are an added plus (little details like the three-limes failure of The Man I Love, the best track here, but a flop initially and canned from Lady Be Good! and Strike Up The Band), but the real delight is the simple lyricism and creative sophistication Previn brings to a composer whose work he seems to understand with his very nerve-ends. His obvious delight in the closing take of  I Got Rhythm is so infectious most listeners will recue the track and hear it through again. Splendid stuff from a born-again jazzman.”
- Richard Cook and Brian Morton, The Penguin Guide to Jazz on CD, 6th Ed.

“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 downmarket, 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, with recordings of the Mozart and Ravel concertos as well as chamber works by Brahms, Prokofiev, Gershwin and Barber, to name a few. His playing too was nurtured in Los Angeles by the many European émigrés, refugees from great orchestras, who relieved their boredom with film music by playing chamber music in abandoned school halls. It was there he discovered, through the violinist Joseph Szigeti, the trios of Beethoven and Schubert, and formed a classical trio himself. He played for Schoenberg and Stravinsky and, among the émigrés, began to feel the power of a baton in his hand. Meanwhile he went on joyously with jazz, again in his own trio. His intricate “games” with them sold hundreds of thousands of records.

The definite shift to conducting came in 1968, at 39, when the LSO recruited him for a spell that lasted 11 years. He accepted so fast that it shocked him, but his boyhood passion had been to see the hills that inspired Vaughan Williams and the sea that pulsed through Britten’s “Peter Grimes”. These composers, as well as Elgar and Walton, who wanted to dedicate his never-written third symphony to him, now became favourites in his repertoire. (He recorded all nine symphonies of Vaughan Williams, rapturously confessing that he really was a romantic.) Conducting required an even more serious approach, though he remained good at cloaking it with soft-spoken jokiness: massive amounts of research and rehearsal time, especially for pieces the players thought they knew.

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 of The Economist, March 7, 2019 under the headline "Maestro and music"

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