André Previn’s blue period
Sir Andre, come home.
I know we’re not really supposed to call him that. As an honorary knight of the British empire, he is entitled to be known as Andre Previn, KBE. Still, I think “Sir Andre” has a certain ring. The former film composer, former music director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic and candidate for most versatile American musician, past or present, turned 80 last month and hasn’t been back in town for a long while. It couldn’t hurt to butter him up a little if we ever hope to see him again.
In fact, Previn’s Los Angeles past has been pretty much swept under the rug during his 80th-birthday celebrations. Among the tributes are a 10-CD box set from EMI Classics documenting his decade as principal conductor of the London Symphony, during which he became the most mod classical guy in ‘70s swinging London. Deutsche Grammophon has a six-CD box set revisiting Previn’s recordings of the last two decades.
But with the exception of a couple of old jazz tracks on Sony’s single-disc 80th-birthday celebration (as well as tiny excerpts of his film music), there is little hint of Previn’s early Hollywood career as a film composer and jazz pianist. His unhappy but not insignificant tenure with the philharmonic -- which began with fireworks shot off in the Music Center plaza in 1985 and ended with his sudden angry resignation in 1989 -- seems to have been all but erased from history.
None of his philharmonic recordings have been reissued. Previn himself makes little note of those L.A. years on his website. L.A.'s orchestra, meanwhile, ends today a remarkable season, the final one of Esa-Pekka Salonen’s 17 as music director, with little acknowledgment of his predecessor.
True, under Previn, the orchestra’s playing could be lackluster. The programming was sometimes dull. Previn wasn’t always great box office.
Under Salonen, the philharmonic came to stand for just about everything new, innovative and exciting in classical music. Salonen has been made the philharmonic’s first conductor laureate and is expected back regularly.
But in crucial ways, Previn helped make some of Salonen’s accomplishments possible. And Los Angeles made Previn possible, not to mention the intriguingly complex figure and consummate musician he is.
Born in Berlin, Previn arrived here with his family in 1939, his 10th year, as refugees from Nazi Germany. While still at Beverly Hills High, he began to work as an arranger and orchestrator at MGM. His film career took off quickly, as did his side occupation as a very groovy jazz pianist. But he always considered classical music his calling and played new music at the Monday Evening Concerts and chamber music with the celebrated Hungarian violinist Joseph Szigeti.
In 1968, Previn made a clean break with Hollywood to become music director of the Houston Symphony. Texas proved too provincial for an ambitious, stellar musician, but London soon gave him the credibility he needed.
Previn made a lot of great records with the London Symphony. The EMI set doesn’t do the decade full justice, since splendid original analog recordings are mostly presented in acoustically edgy early digital remasterings. But Previn’s glowing account of Messiaen’s “Turangalila” Symphony, the score’s first great recording, sounds terrific. And nothing can take away from his first Gershwin recordings, which have scarcely been bettered.
Previn resurrected many neglected composers. He made it a mission to record Rachmaninoff’s normally cut Second Symphony complete, sophisticated in Previn’s subtle shifting of moods. No doubt this is a technique he developed working in the studios and in smoky jazz clubs.
Previn became a great champion of British music, but the set neglects his classic Vaughn Williams and Britten recordings. His exciting yet nonflashy accounts of Walton’s “Belshazzar’s Feast” and Orff’s “Carmina Burana” will be hard for anyone without access to librettos to appreciate. EMI doesn’t include notes on the music or texts.
Much of what made Previn a success in London turned out to be his downfall in Los Angeles. The unimpeachable classical musician with a Hollywood and jazz background seemed the perfect fit. Instead, the prodigal son treated his past as baggage he needed to shed. But he did, at least, want an up-to-date orchestra and set about emphasizing the 20th century. Shortly before resigning, he hired a young, little-known composer from Cornell, Steven Stucky, to be the composer in residence. Stucky, who has just ended his formal 20-year association with the philharmonic, went on to be a close confidant of Salonen, a major composer in his own right and a crucial figure in the orchestra’s growth. Mainly, though, the chemistry between Previn and the philharmonic was wrong. He had nights on the podium when he was highly engaged and nights when he wasn’t. The orchestra and audience never knew what to expect. Previn and then-Executive Director Ernest Fleischmann got into a power struggle, and the whole business fell apart when Fleischmann attempted to appoint Salonen principal guest conductor and hire him to tour behind Previn’s back.
The D.G. set documents Previn’s post-L.A. career in recordings with the Vienna Philharmonic, Boston Symphony, London Symphony and Royal Philharmonic Orchestra. Previn has became an increasingly active composer in recent years as well, particularly writing for such favored soloists as violinist Anne Sophie-Mutter (to whom he was briefly married) and soprano Renee Fleming. There are some really lovely things found in this set. The performance of Korngold’s Violin Concerto with Mutter is pure, fabulous sugar and cream. There is a probing account of Shostakovich’s Eighth Symphony and the best performance on disc of Ravel’s “L’Enfant et les Sortileges.”
In these later recordings, Previn is far less uptight than he was in L.A. Two weeks before he resigned from the L.A. Philharmonic, he made his first jazz record in 20 years and has been an active improviser ever since.
His second opera, “Brief Encounter,” had its premiere last month in Houston, and it is based on a 1945 British film, which came out just before a teenage Previn started working for the studios. The movie pretentiously used Rachmaninoff for its soundtrack. The winning opera score, however, is pure Previn and feels suitably cinematic in its creation of atmosphere.
But there is one step missing in putting the Previn pieces together and in making amends with Los Angeles. He has never performed in Walt Disney Concert Hall. Although he didn’t actively participate in the design process of the hall, Previn was the conductor during the early stages, and I can’t help but think that on some level he influenced the objectives of creating an intimate, transparent acoustic. The refined, unshowy Previn always looked and sounded swamped by the grandiose, soupy-sounding Dorothy Chandler Pavilion.
I don’t know what it will now take to unroll the welcome mat. But Sir Andre, you really can come home again.