Versatility: “The ability to adapt or be adapted to many different functions or activities.”
Merriam-Webster might as well have put a picture of André Previn next to this entry in their ubiquitous dictionary. There was no limit to what he could do, and André knew it.
Born into a Jewish family in Berlin, he came to the United States at the age of nine. Seeing the inherent talent in the young lad, his family moved from New York to Los Angeles, where André’s great-uncle, Charles, was the head of the music department at Universal Studios.
Already an accomplished pianist, André was headed in several directions musically. Composing, playing and conducting for high school productions, he had an uncommon ability to be disciplined and improvisational at the same time, which took him into the film studios as well as the world of jazz.
I first got to know André when my parents, who were part of the Hollywood musical scene, introduced him to me at a recording session. He knew that I was interested in different genres of music and invited me to come and listen to him play with his trio at Shelly’s Manne Hole, the late-night home for jazz greats on the West Coast. With André at the piano, Ray Brown on bass and Shelly Manne himself on the drums, I heard virtuosity at its highest peak that night.
From that time on, we became good friends. When my dad passed away in 1963, André was at his memorial service, and he remained close to my mother, always asking for her whenever a studio date popped up. With Grammys and Oscars already to his name, he decided to leave the lucrative side of the music business and begin a career as a symphonic conductor. André had already written several pieces for orchestra, and he usually would begin his concerts with a composition of his so-called Overture to a Comedy.
His very first commercial recording contained music by Benjamin Britten and Aaron Copland. It was with the Saint Louis Symphony, where I would become music director two decades later. André became a popular conductor on the world scene, but it was in London where his talents were best recognised. Leading the LSO, he could show off all sides of his personality. Inevitably he was compared to Leonard Bernstein, another great musician with gifts in many areas. But André had an air of West Coast cool, as opposed to East Coast intellectualism.
He brought a New World conceptualism to British music, a repertoire mostly ignored by conductors from other countries. His infectious personality and pointed sense of humour were perfectly suited for this orchestra. And being a product of Hollywood, André could banter with the best of them, making memorable appearances with the comedy duo Morecambe and Wise.
Moving on to music directorships in Pittsburgh and Los Angeles, his results varied, nothing quite like the London time. But by now, André was going back to his more creative side, composing furiously. He produced theatre pieces, operas and, most notably, works for violin, which would feature his wife, Anne-Sophie Mutter.
I last saw him two years ago when he came to a Carnegie Hall concert I was leading. He was frail and wracked with arthritis, but his humour was intact. When I walked over to greet him as he sat in the corner of the green room after the performance, he looked up with those twinkling eyes and said: “Leonard, your beat is still so clear that even blind people could follow you.”
He touched so many and can still continue to do so with the audio and video recordings he left behind. For those of us who were privileged to know him, all we can do now is wonder about what projects and collaborations he is working on with God.
Published in The Jewish Chronicle, March 7, 2019