CHARLIE CONNELLY explores the life of conductor André Previn.
It was the best piece of timing of his entire career. For all the hundreds of occasions André Previn had stood on platforms in front of orchestras around the world, his baton beating time, leading some of the greatest musicians in the world through some of the greatest works ever composed, his sense of timing had never been as exquisite as one moment witnessed by 25 million people in Britain on Christmas Eve 1971.
The premise was that Morecambe and Wise had lured Previn onto their show to conduct the Mendelssohn Violin Concerto with Yehudi Menuhin as soloist when their real intention was for Previn to conduct Eric Morecambe at the piano performing Grieg’s Piano Concerto.
Seeing through the ruse Previn tries several times to leave, wishing them goodnight, and several times the duo beg him to stay, pleading, “Don’t go, Mr Preview”. Amid much sleeve-tugging and flattering entreaties he appears to relent.
“Well, all right,” he says. “I’ll go get my baton”. The duo break into relieved smiles. In the space of a heartbeat Previn smiles, nods, adds, “it’s in Chicago”, and turns to leave.
Morecambe and Wise had been worried that Previn’s late arrival in the country from the US – the conductor saw the script for the first time in the taxi from the airport to the studio – hadn’t left enough time to rehearse the sketch. The stakes were high: the Morecambe and Wise Christmas special was the highlight of the television year and the sketch with a guest star was the centrepiece of the production. On stage, in front of the cameras, a lot was riding on Previn and his performance, but as soon as he delivered the “Chicago” line any anxiety in the hosts visibly dissipates amid a gale of laughter from the packed house.
“Pow!” yells a delighted Morecambe at the audience, making a fist. “He’s in! I like him!”
The rest of the sketch, which until that point had been a little stilted, goes like a dream right up to the punchline in which Morecambe grabs Previn by the lapels and growls that he’s playing all the right notes, but not necessarily in the right order.
For the rest of his life, almost 50 years, Previn couldn’t walk down a British street without someone rolling down a car window and shouting, “Mr Preview!” He took it all with characteristic good humour. Indeed, that sketch serves as an almost perfect encapsulation of the man and his career. He was high profile enough to be a star guest on the biggest television show in the country, he was entirely at home in showbusiness surroundings yet he was at the same time feted as a leading figure in the world of classical music, not exactly known for its prime-time glamour.
There was also that timing, musically, comically and in terms of decisions concerning a career that encompassed successful jazz pianist, award-winning film composer and conductor of some of the greatest orchestras in the world. He even found time for five marriages.
“All my life people have asked, why don’t you just compose, conduct or play the piano?” he said in 1997. “The answer to that is that as long as they interest me and people are nice enough to allow me to do it, I’ll continue. I would hate to only do one thing.”
When he stepped out from behind the curtain on that Morecambe and Wise Christmas show Previn was 41 years old and three years into his tenure as principal conductor of the London Symphony Orchestra. It had been a surprising appointment for a man known at the time for his jazz piano playing and Hollywood film scores with limited conducting experience mainly with provincial orchestras in the US. The LSO’s choice of what many perceived as a jazz musician steeped in Hollywood was on the face of it a bold step for both parties. At the time, however, the LSO was heavily in debt and losing key administrators and important musicians to internal politicking. It wasn’t quite the dream posting it appeared: there was work to be done, a new broom required, a new mindset introduced.
Previn turned out to be the perfect man for job. He’d stay at the LSO helm for 11 years, longer than any previous principal conductor, and raise the profile in Britain of both the orchestra and classical music itself. He programmed then unfashionable English composers he loved, Ralph Vaughan Williams and William Walton, and became renowned for incendiary interpretations of such Russian masters as Rachmaninov and Prokofiev that filled concert halls. What’s more he was clearly enjoying himself, bringing a joyful panache to the podium and winning the trust and respect of the musicians themselves.
“I remember once being taken aside by one of the LSO players after I’d made a hash of conducting some Tippett,” Previn recalled. “The player said, ‘Look, if you ever get lost in a very complicated piece just look vague and elegant and we’ll fix it. If you start flapping at us, we’ll all sink.’ Well, a bit later I was conducting Stravinsky’s Symphony in C and got awfully lost. So I followed his advice, looked vague and elegant and the LSO rescued me.”
During his time in London Previn also became a fixture on British television, hosting a weekly BBC series André Previn’s Music Night in which he spoke passionately and accessibly about a piece of music before performing it with the LSO, the musicians released from stuffy evening dress into pullovers and open-necked shirts.
He was a natural showman, a crowd pleaser who retained the gravitas of authority without ever talking down to the audience. He was also the ultimate musical polymath. There were recordings and live performances with figures as diverse as Olivier Messiaen, Ralph Vaughan Williams, Ravi Shankar and Oscar Peterson. Many said he blurred the lines between classical, jazz and film music but that wasn’t the case, there was no crossover, no fusion, he was just a master of all of them individually and a roaring international success in each. In 1956 Previn played piano on drummer Shelly Manne’s My Fair Lady, an album of instrumental interpretations of songs from the musical that became the first jazz album to sell a million copies (“He has the flow,” said Dizzy Gillespie of Previn’s playing, “which a lot of guys don’t have and won’t get”). He won four Academy Awards and 10 Grammys for his film work and was principal conductor, guest conductor or musical director at seven of the world’s great symphony orchestras. Not bad for someone who began his career writing music for a Lassie film.
Previn was 19 years old when he produced a score to accompany The Sun Comes Up, a 1949 production starring Hollywood’s most famous canine, and by then had been in the US for half of his life. Born Andreas Priwin in Berlin, the son of a lawyer, he’d shown early musical talent and was enrolled at the Berlin Conservatory when he was six years old. In 1938 despite having earned a scholarship, Previn was expelled for being Jewish. His father saw the writing on the wall and, according to his son, decided to move the family to California largely on the strength of seeing Loretta Young in Ramona.
The young Andre learned his English from films and comics and as a teenager honed his timing and sense of theatre by playing piano in a silent film theatre until he was fired for accompanying The Last Supper with Tiger Rag. Family connections – his uncle was a film score composer at Universal – landed him his break on the Lassie film and Previn was soon a much sought-after film composer. He’d gained three Oscar nominations by the time he was 25 and in 1961 was nominated for three Academy Awards for three different films in the same year.
It was then he decided Hollywood and jazz were not challenging him enough creatively and would concentrate on conducting. He found it difficult at first, but his talent was obvious and before long he was in charge of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, then on his way to London.
If he ever did wonder why he left the security of an MGM contract he was often reassured he’d done the right thing. When commissioned to write the music for the 1971 film See No Evil starring his then wife Mia Farrow he produced an eerie, edgy, contemporary score suitable for a murder mystery, only for the studio to reject it.
“I pointed out as gently as possible that the accompaniment to slitting throats isn’t Mantovani,” said Previn. “They said yes, but there isn’t anything the kids can whistle. Ah, Hollywood.”
They might well have told him he’d written all the right notes, but not necessarily in the right order.