Composer and conductor, André Previn

Los Angeles Times music critic Mark Swed once called André Previn the most versatile American musician ever, and I have to agree with him. Yes, even more versatile than Leonard Bernstein. During high school, Previn picked up extra cash by improvising scores to silent films at the Rhapsody Theatre in Los Angeles. When he was 16, MGM hired him to assist on scoring a movie. Four Oscars later, having conquered the worlds of film and jazz, he walked away from it all to pursue a classical conducting career. After some lessons in San Francisco from the great French conductor Pierre Monteux, Previn, seemingly out of nowhere, was named music director of the Houston Symphony. Then came top posts with the Pittsburgh Symphony, LA Phil, London Symphony Orchestra, and a close association with the Vienna Philharmonic, among many others. During his years as music director of the LA Phil, Previn had a close association with Classical KUSC. As a sparkling radio and television personality, he loved being part of our national broadcasts of the orchestra, and even hosted his own series, High Performance. Jim Svejda and I have fond memories of keeling over with laughter at Previn’s wicked humor, and his rather tall tales of a remarkable musical life. And that voice, the timbre of an English horn! The tenure in Los Angeles was short-lived. Previn battled with the Philharmonic’s then Managing Director Ernest Fleischmann and never returned as a guest conductor. Then LA Times music critic Martin Bernheimer tended to give Previn a rough time, too, once referring to him as a first-rate conductor of second-rate music. But Previn was invited to write a piece for the orchestra’s centenary season; an olive branch extended after 30 years. The sheer versatility of the man: conductor, opera and orchestral composer, arranger, great Mozart pianist, author of the uproarious autobiography “No Minor Chords” (edited by Jacqueline Onassis), epic jazz pianist, 10-time Grammy winner, and on and on. Here’s one of my most beloved Previn recordings: Rachmaninoff’s Second Symphony, with Previn conducting the London Symphony Orchestra.

During an LA Philharmonic concert tour of Europe in 1987, I tagged along as a reporter. We started the tour in Previn’s native Berlin: a big deal because the orchestra had been invited to kick off the city’s 750th-anniversary celebrations. Following one of the rehearsals in the storied Philharmonie Hall, Previn and several of the musicians ambled through a nearby park. Previn remembered being forced to sit on the yellow benches as a child in the 1930s as his family was Jewish. They fled Berlin in the nick of time in 1938, landing in Los Angeles via Paris. It was here in LA that he quickly established himself as a remarkable, almost unfathomable talent. What a fitting tribute that tonight’s Los Angeles Philharmonic concert, led by Gustavo Dudamel, will be dedicated to André Previn’s memory.

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