Sunday 18 August 2019

André Previn - the man who struck a chord across the spectrum of music

ClassicTalk with George Hamilton

'Entertainer': André Previn
'Entertainer': André Previn

George Hamilton

When that great entertainer André Previn passed away just over five weeks ago at the age of 89, he left a legacy that extended right across the spectrum of music.

I chose that word 'entertainer' with care, for his art touched many more than those devoted to classical.

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Nowhere was this more in evidence than in the famous television sketch that resurfaced when news of his death was announced.

Fifty years ago, a staple of the BBC's Christmas output was a seasonal special featuring the comedians Eric Morecambe and Ernie Wise.

They always had a significant guest artist on the programme, one you'd least expect to see there. At Christmas 1971, that guest was André Previn, at the time principal conductor of the London Symphony Orchestra.

He was to direct "the band", as the comedians referred to the musicians, all in black tie, playing the opening of Grieg's 'Piano Concerto'. Morecambe was to be the soloist.

His comic attempt to perform brought a rebuke from the conductor.

"You're playing all the wrong notes," Previn told him.

Morecambe rose slowly from the piano stool and grabbed him by the lapels.

"I'm playing all the right notes," he countered, "but not necessarily in the right order."

The sketch concluded with André Previn delivering a ragtime version of the music, which brought a standing ovation from the orchestra, while the studio audience cheered.

Those three minutes of TV neatly encapsulated much of the career of the maestro, his command of the orchestra at the outset, his exemplary performance of the solo part when showing how it should be done, and then the extemporization that brought the house down.

In the spirit of the moment, Morecambe and Wise had got his name wrong, calling him "Andrew Preview".

He enjoyed that. Years later, he revealed in an interview that he couldn't walk down The Strand in London without taxi drivers saluting him as "Mr Preview".

Previn was born in Berlin. His family fled Nazi Germany and settled in Los Angeles, where he made a name for himself as a jazz pianist.

He was spotted and hired by the film studio MGM and went on to work on the scores of over 50 cinema releases.

No fewer than 13 Oscar nominations followed and he won four Academy Awards - for Gigi in 1958, Porgy and Bess (1959), Irma La Douce (1963), and My Fair Lady (1964). An interest in conducting he'd first pursued during his military service when he was with the Sixth Army Band in San Francisco blossomed fully when he followed Pierre Monteux, his mentor in California, as music director of the London Symphony Orchestra.

He held the post from 1968 to 1979, a period remembered as a new era.

The LSO was almost bankrupt when he took over. He expanded their repertoire and took them into the recording studio.

He reached out to a wider audience through his television series André Previn's Music Night, which turned both the orchestra and their principal conductor into major stars.

A stellar concert pianist, particularly brilliant at interpreting Mozart, he retained his links with jazz, playing regularly in a trio, and making at least one jazz recording every year.

He wrote extensively - André Previn's Guide To Music and his Guide To The Orchestra were published in the 1980s - and he was composing right to the very end.

There were symphonies, two operas, chamber music, and many songs.

Previn was married and divorced five times. The actress Mia Farrow was his third wife. His fifth was the German violinist Anne-Sophie Mutter, to whom one of his concertos is dedicated.

André Previn was born on this day in 1929.

George Hamilton presents 'The Hamilton Scores' on RTÉ lyric fm from 10am each Saturday and Sunday

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