André Previn (1929-2019)
The German-born American conductor, composer and jazz pianist André Previn, who served as music director of the London Symphony Orchestra after a glittering early career in Hollywood which included four Academy Awards, died today in Manhattan.
Previn was born into a Jewish family in Berlin in 1929 or 1930 (sources differ as to his date of birth), but spent much of his childhood in Los Angeles, where his great-uncle worked as music director of Universal Studios; by his late teens was already working as an arranger for MGM Studios, and was soon collaborating with jazz legends including Ella Fitzgerald, Benny Goodman and Peggy Lee. He won his first Oscar (for Gigi, in 1958) whilst still in his twenties, with other film credits including The Fastest Gun Alive, Long Day’s Journey into Night, The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, and Elmer Gantry.
During the early 1950s Previn studied conducting privately with Pierre Monteux; for the next decade or so Hollywood remained his main focus, but in his early thirties he stepped away from a hugely successful career in the film industry in order to pursue his passion for conducting (though his love for jazz and crossover would endure for the rest of his life, and he made a number of acclaimed jazz albums in the 1990s after stepping down as music director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic). He took up his first major conducting position with the Houston Symphony Orchestra in 1967; the following year he was appointed principal conductor of the London Symphony Orchestra, with whom he made award-winning recordings of works including Walton’s Belshazzar’s Feast, Debussy’s Nocturnes and Images, the Elgar and Walton Cello Concertos with Yo-Yo Ma, the Mendelssohn Violin Concerto with Itzhak Perlman, Rachmaninov’s The Bells, and Prokofiev’s Alexander Nevsky.
During his time with the LSO, Previn did much to bring both the orchestra and classical music in general to a wider audience, notably with the BBC series André Previn's Music Night and a now-legendary appearance as ‘Andrew Preview’ in a 1971 appearance on Morecambe and Wise’s Christmas Special, in which Morecambe (ostensibly stepping in to replace Yehudi Menuhin) famously butchers Grieg’s Piano Concerto, playing ‘all the right notes, just not necessarily in the right order’.
Previn was also a prolific composer, his affinity with cinema often feeding into his own music: his two operas A Streetcar Named Desire (premiered in San Francisco in 1998, with Renée Fleming as Blanche Dubois) and Brief Encounter (commissioned by Houston Grand Opera and first staged in 2009) were both inspired by classic movies, and his Violin Concerto No. 1 ‘Anne Sophie’ (written for his then-wife Anne-Sophie Mutter) echoes the musical language of Eric Korngold’s own rather cinematic violin concerto. (Shortly after completing the work, Previn won a Grammy for his recording of Korngold’s film scores for Captain Blood and The Sea Hawk with the London Symphony Orchestra). His last orchestral work, Almost an Overture, was premiered in 2017 as part of the Newport Contemporary Music Series in Rhode Island.
Previn’s awards and honours included two pairs of consecutive Oscars (for his work on Gigi (1958), Porgy & Bess (1959), Irma la Douce (1963) and My Fair Lady (1964)), eleven Grammy Awards, and Gramophone Magazine’s Lifetime Achievement Award in 2008; in 1996 he became an honorary Knight Commander of the Order of the British Empire. He was married five times, to jazz singer Betty Bennett, singer-songwriter Dory Langan, actress Mia Farrow, Heather Sneddon, and violinist Anne-Sophie Mutter (with whom he made several recordings including the Sibelius, Tchaikovsky and Korngold violin concertos). He died at home in New York on 28th February.