The obituaries for André Previn, who died last Thursday at the age of eighty-nine, were respectful, even admiring, in a way that they wouldn’t have been had he died a quarter-century ago. It took a very long time for Previn to be fully accepted by the classical-music establishment, which for decades looked askance at a conductor who’d gotten his start in the Hollywood studios, and I confess to being a bit surprised by how lavish a sendoff he received from such official organs of respectability as, say, the New York Times.
Perhaps it’s simply that Previn survived into a world in which the ability to move freely among stylistic genres had long since become not merely acceptable but downright fashionable. What’s more, the Brits went even further in their posthumous praise. Witness, for example, the Guardian’s sendoff: “The conductor, composer and pianist André Previn…was not only among the most charismatic performers of his day, but also enjoyed one of the greatest classical-music lives since Berlioz and Liszt—and one that did not grow less eventful with old age.”
My own view of Previn, if far from jaundiced, is nonetheless somewhat cooler. Admire him though I did, I thought of him as a prodigally gifted artist who did more things well—but nothing better—than anyone else. To compare him to Leonard Bernstein, as many have done in recent days, is to make the point with unintentionally cruel honesty. Like Previn, Bernstein was widely criticized for having spread himself too thin. Yet he still managed to leave behind On the Town, Candide, and West Side Story, as well as a stack of recordings that are, if rarely definitive, almost always remarkable. Not so Previn: I can’t think of even one of his classical recordings that I prefer to all its competitors, nor are any of his compositions especially memorable, in part because he lacked the priceless gift of melody. As a result, only two of his film scores, for Bad Day at Black Rock and Elmer Gantry, are distinguished, and only one of his pop songs, “You’re Gonna Hear From Me,” came remotely close to becoming a standard.
As for Previn’s classical pieces, what I wrote in Time about his 1998 operatic version of A Streetcar Named Desire could be said of any of them:
Previn’s well-bred score barely hints at the dark crosscurrents of obsession and desperation that made Tennessee Williams’ play so naggingly memorable. This slow-moving Streetcar is tonal but tuneless, sometimes violent but never sexy. Even the bluesy bits are oddly polite—an unexpected letdown from a composer-conductor who plays first-rate jazz piano on the side.
Two decades after the fact, I can also admit that I was being just as polite about his jazz piano playing, which was immaculately finished and unfailingly agreeable but almost entirely faceless. I can’t imagine anyone being able to pick Previn out of an auditory lineup, no doubt because he started out as an imitator—he could “do” Art Tatum without flaw—and never fully succeeded in becoming his own stylistic man.
It strikes me in retrospect that Previn’s greatest gift may well have been his formidable ability as a popularizer. He talked about music wonderfully well in his TV appearances, and he was an impeccably competent interpreter of pretty much anything at which he tried his hand. For all these reasons, he was probably at his best during his eight-year tenure as music director of the Pittsburgh Symphony, a good orchestra that he turned into a very good one, simultaneously putting it in the national limelight by hosting Previn and the Pittsburgh on PBS for three deservedly successful years. He was made for that job, and never found another one as well suited to his talents: it says everything about Previn that he seems never to have been seriously considered to run any of the world’s top-tier orchestras, which went elsewhere when looking for new maestros. (The Los Angeles Philharmonic, which he led to famously unhappy effect from 1985 to 1989, did not yet fill that bill.)
I wonder how Previn felt about that, just as I wonder whether he was truly fulfilled by his career, extraordinary in so many ways as it was. You can’t read No Minor Chords: My Days in Hollywood, his witty 1991 memoir, without realizing that he had a first-rate mind, as well as a great deal of personal insight. Rarely has any famous conductor told a story about himself that is as revealing—not to mention self-deprecating—as this tale that Previn told about his conducting teacher, Pierre Monteux:
He liked cloaking his advice with indirection and irony. A few years later he saw me conduct a concert with a provincial orchestra. He came backstage after the performance. He paid me some compliments and then asked, “In the last movement of the Haydn symphony, my dear, did you think the orchestra was playing well?” My mind whipped through the movement; had there been a mishap, had something gone wrong? Finally, and fearing the worst, I said that yes, I thought the orchestra had indeed played very well. Monteux leaned toward me conspiratorially and smiled. “So did I,” he said. “Next time, don’t interfere!”
I think it might have been fun to know such a man, just as it says a great deal about Previn that he was close friends with both Mike Nichols and Tom Stoppard. Alas, I never met him, but I shared an elevator with him at Lincoln Center last year: I was there to review Stoppard’s The Hard Problem, and just before the doors closed, Previn was wheeled into the elevator by an attendant, all but invisible beneath the brutal marks of age, though I had no trouble recognizing him. I was tempted to introduce myself, but thought better of it. What could I possibly have said that would have been of any interest to him? Instead, I looked discreetly away and left him to his reflections.
For what it’s worth, my guess is that Previn was far too smart and self-knowing not to be perfectly aware that for all his great success, he didn’t quite manage to hit the high C as an artist, least of all in the way that Bernstein did. That is a very dark thought, and while I hope he was content to be what he was and do all that he did—as well he should have been—I have my doubts.
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André Previn and Oscar Peterson talk about Art Tatum on the BBC in 1974:
The main-title cue from Previn’s score for Bad Day at Black Rock, performed by Previn and the MGM Studio Orchestra:
Previn and the Philharmonia perform excerpts from William Walton’s “Orb and Sceptre,” Violin Concerto, and Belshazzar’s Feast at London’s Royal Festival Hall in 1982. (The soloist in the concerto is Kyung-Wha Chung.) This concert was given in honor of the eightieth birthday of Walton, who was present in the audience: