The conductor, composer and pianist André Previn has died at the age of 89 at his Manhattan home. An 11-time Grammy Award and four-time Oscar winner, he was a dazzlingly versatile artist who moved easily between classical music, jazz, film and pop.
André Previn. Photo © A. P. Mutter
Born Andreas Ludwig Prewin on April 6, 1929 in Berlin, he entered the Berlin Conservatory at the age of six after his parents realised he had perfect pitch. But Previn’s father, who was Jewish, soon moved the family to Paris in 1938 to escape Nazi Germany. The family remained in Paris for about a year until relocating once again to Los Angeles, where Previn studied composition with Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco. His musical interests were varied and he pursued all of them with a similar focus – he became highly skilled at jazz piano, playing with the likes of Ella Fitzgerald, and occasionally conducted the California Youth Symphony. As a high school student, Previn began to arrange and compose film scores for MGM, which later saw him contracted as a composer-conductor. Over the course of his career, he would score, play in or conduct more than 50 films, winning Oscars for adapting the music of Broadway musicals Gigi, Porgy and Bess, Irma La Douce and My Fair Lady.
While completing military service in San Francisco in the early 1950s, Previn undertook private conducting lessons with Pierre Monteux. Though he continued to work in film after his military service came to an end, by the 1960s conducting became his primary focus. Having occasionally guest conducted at the Los Angeles Philharmonic, Previn now spent many years conducting in small cities to gain experience and leave behind the label of Hollywood composer.
His first breakthrough came when he succeeded John Barbirolli as chief conductor of the Houston Symphony Orchestra. The following year saw him appointed principal conductor of the London Symphony Orchestra, a position he would hold for 11 years, and from 1975 to 1984 he was music director of the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra. He was also principal conductor of the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra from 1985 to 1988. In 1985, Previn became music director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic. The tenure was a stormy one, seeing him clash often with the orchestra’s manager, Ernest Fleischmann. Previn would resign in 1989 following a disagreement over the appointment of his successor. In more recent years, he was music director of the Oslo Philharmonic from 2002 to 2006, and in 2009 was named Principal Guest Conductor of Tokyo’s NHK Symphony Orchestra.
During his time with the London Symphony, Previn made regular television appearances in order to broaden the orchestra’s reach. He conducted the LSO on André Previn’s Music Night, a weekly program on the BBC, and appeared in the Morecambe and Wise Christmas Show in 1971 and 1972. He also appeared in interviews with other artists, game shows and documentaries about popular music and jazz. In America, he hosted the series Previn and the Pittsburgh, introducing the wider public to the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra. He became known as a charismatic public figure who brought classical music to the people.
As well as maintaining his career as a jazz pianist, Previn continued to compose throughout his career, writing musicals, orchestral and chamber works and several concertos, among them a cello sonata for Yo-Yo Ma and a piano concerto for Vladimir Ashkenazy. His largest-scale work was an operatic adaptation of Tennessee Williams’ A Streetcar Named Desire, which premiered at San Francisco Opera in 1998 and was written for Renée Fleming. Previn was working on an “opera of sorts” called Penelope – to a libretto by Tom Stoppard – for the soprano up until his death. It is due to receive its premiere at Boston’s Tanglewood Festival this July, while the Sydney Symphony Orchestra performs Previn’s earlier collaboration with Stoppard, Every Good Boy Deserves Favour, in November.
In addition to his television appearances, Previn’s public profile was heightened thanks to his five marriages, one of which was to the actor Mia Farrow. His fifth marriage was to the violinist Anne-Sophie Mutter – though they divorced four years later, the pair remained good friends and colleagues.
Previn’s discography is unsurprisingly vast, his many recordings with the London Symphony particularly acclaimed and the result of a close relationship with record label EMI. He championed the works of Vaughan Williams and William Walton, and was celebrated for his interpretation of the Russian repertoire. He was the first to record the uncut version of Rachmaninov’s Second Symphony in 1973, a touchstone recording widely regarded as helping spark a re-evaluation of the composer’s music. Previn was also distinguished for his interpretations of the French repertoire, and he spent much of the late 70s conducting Messiaen’s Turangalîla-Symphonie, then a little-known work. His early recordings as a piano soloist are included in Philips’ Great Pianists of the 20th Century series.
Among his many achievements, Previn was created a Knight Commander of the Order of the British Empire in 1996, and in 1998 he received a Kennedy Center Honor for lifetime achievement in music.