Seduced By Music
As a teen, musician and composer André Previn escaped the Nazis with his family and moved to Los Angeles. There, he launched a career that would become one of the most colorful and ambitious in American music history.
In the course of a career spanning more than a half century, pianist, conductor and composer André Previn has moved easily and successfully from film soundtracks and jazz to classical and chamber music and back again. One of America's most versatile and best-known musicians, Previn appeals to the broadest possible audience and has won Oscars and Grammys, appeared on "The Muppet Show" and even been knighted.
Born Andreas Ludwig Priwin in Berlin on April 6, 1929, Previn began studying music at the Berlin Conservatory before his family emigrated from Nazi Germany to Los Angeles in 1939. As early as his teens, he began recording as a jazz pianist and working for the MGM film studios writing musical scores. The first score he wrote was for a "Lassie" movie in 1949. While carrying out his military duty from 1950-51, Previn studied conducting with Pierre Monteux in San Francisco, but continued to play jazz piano and compose and arrange film soundtracks on the side.
Between 1959 and 1965, Previn won four Academy Awards for his film adaptations of music for "Gigi," "Porgy and Bess," (which also brought him two Grammy awards) "My Fair Lady," and for his original score for "Irma La Douce." He also won three Grammys for pop and jazz albums.
Avoiding the creative death trap
Following his early success, Previn lost interest in "manufacturing music that would be played while Debbie Reynolds spoke" and turned increasingly to classical music for a new challenge. "One of the reasons I quit the Hollywood scene is that I suddenly realized that the work didn't frighten me anymore," he told "The New York Times" in 1996. "I think that if you're going to do good work, the work has to scare you, and so I made sure that I went into an area where every day was frightening. If you work in a job where you can be praised and get another job without worrying, that's a death trap. It's time to do something else."
But even in his new line of work, Previn seemed to have little trouble finding jobs. After making his conducting debut in St. Louis in 1963, he served as principal conductor and music director of the Houston Symphony from 1967 to 1969. Then he moved on to the same post with the London Symphony Orchestra, marking the beginning of a lasting relationship: as principal conductor and music director until 1979 and as "conductor laureate" since 1993. In between he headed the Pittsburgh Symphony (1976-84) and the Royal Philharmonic (music director 1985-88, principal conductor 1988-91).
Previn returned to his home town in 1986, "flattered and cajoled and seduced" into the position of music director for the Los Angeles Philharmonic. But the move turned out to be "a terrible mistake," as Previn said in 1998. Conflict with the orchestra's executive director forced him to step down in 1989 to make room for the young Finnish conductor Esa-Pekka Salonen. Nine years and a move to New York later, Previn still didn't have much nice to say about his former home: "I don't care how many brilliant and costly buildings they put up for the arts," he said. "Los Angeles simply isn't a very cultured city."
Previn didn't immediately break all ties with the Los Angeles Philharmonic, though, and he continued to serve as a guest conductor, leading the orchestra on a tour to New York in 1990. And far from being a career setback, leaving Los Angeles opened up a plethora of possibilities.
In addition to guest engagements with the New York Philharmonic, Boston Symphony, Vienna Philharmonic and the London Symphony, among others, Previn began performing more chamber music and devoted more time to composing.
"Oh, it's easily true that I've been busier than ever," he said in 1996. "I've composed more during the last five years than I had in the previous ten, and I have a whole load of commissions ahead of me. And because chamber music is so plentiful on the East Coast, I'm now playing at least three dozen chamber concerts a year. ... I am also doing a lot of accompanying, mainly for singers. When you add all that to my regular schedule, it does get to be a lot."
As if that weren't enough, he also started performing jazz again. His 1989 jazz album "After Hours," with bassist Ray Brown and guitarist Joe Pass, was so successful that he recorded two more, this time with Brown and guitarist Mundell Lowe, with whom he also toured as the André Previn Jazz Trio. Recent jazz recordings include a Duke Ellington songbook, "We Got It Good, and That Ain't Bad" (Deutsche Grammophon, 1999) and "Live at the Jazz Standard" (Decca, 2001), both with bassist David Finck.