Charismatic conductor, composer and pianist renowned as one of the most versatile musicians of his generation

André Previn

The conductor, composer and pianist André Previn, who has died aged 89, 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. His pedigree was unique: no other Oscar-winning conductor-composer from the Hollywood film studios became equally successful in the strictly classical world of the London Symphony Orchestra – which Previn headed from 1968 to 1979 – while also maintaining a side career as a jazz pianist.

As a composer, his successes were singular in their range: from film scores such as that for the Oscar-nominated Elmer Gantry (1960) to stage musicals for the West End (The Good Companions, 1974) and Broadway (Coco, 1970) that were also hits. Later, he returned to composing after a dormant decade with a succession of song cycles, concertos and two major operas, A Streetcar Named Desire (1998) and Brief Encounter (2009), often in a style reaching back to his pre-second world war training in his native Berlin.

André Previn with Eric Morecambe and Ernie Wise on the 1971 Morecambe and Wise Christmas show. Photograph: Trinity Mirror/Mirrorpix/Alamy

His adult years were divided between the east and west coasts of the US, as well as the UK. “Those of you who think that being a conductor is a succession of limousines and mistresses – it isn’t. It’s being some place not long enough to have your laundry done and having to work it out,” Previn said in the Tony Palmer documentary film The Kindness of Strangers (1998). He often headed two orchestras simultaneously in separate continents, but whatever country he was in, he was a highly visible, celebrated presence, often hailed as the new guard of classical music – his humour, accessibility and articulate observational sense demystified his profession – even though his manner of music-making was mainstream, even conservative. Though critics considered Previn a middleweight talent during his London Symphony Orchestra years, his broadcast-friendly qualities expanded the orchestra’s audience through the TV show André Previn’s Music Night (1971-72), and, more indirectly, through the comic alter ego Andrew Preview he created with Eric Morecambe and Ernie Wise. In the US, he brought the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra to unprecedented national attention during his 1976-84 tenure thanks to the TV series Previn and the Pittsburgh (1977-80).

André Previn conducting the London Symphony Orchestra. He was its musical director from 1968 to 1979. Photograph: John Minihan/Getty Images

The son of Charlotte (nee Epstein) and Jacob Prewin, he was born Andreas Ludwig Prewin in Berlin, where his father was a successful lawyer. He received an old-world musical education and spent many evenings playing Beethoven symphonies in piano reductions with his father, who emigrated in 1939 with his family first to Paris and then to Los Angeles, which had become a haven for numerous talented German Jewish families fleeing the Nazi regime. The young Previn claimed to have learned English from viewing Hollywood films repeatedly. By the age of 16, he was shuttling from Beverly Hills high school to the film studios, where he worked as an arranger and, later, a composer. Previn’s first publicly performed composition was a water ballet in the 1948 Esther Williams musical On An Island With You. His first full score was for a bizarre combination of stars – the dog Lassie and the soprano Jeanette MacDonald – in the film The Sun Comes Up (1949). Unlike young concert performers who take a year or two off their age, Previn added a year. While still a young man, he rose to the top of his profession, working on the most prestigious MGM musicals, though, as documented in his witty memoir of that period, No Minor Chords (1992), the job description sometimes extended well beyond music. While working on the now-classic Gigi (1958), he had to chase around France, where the film was being shot, to find a black swan demanded by the temperamental director Vincente Minnelli, only to be told his swan was not black enough. He won Oscars for his work on Gigi, Porgy and Bess (1959), Irma La Douce (1963) and My Fair Lady (1964).

During this time, Previn’s fascination with jazz led him to transcribe the keyboard improvisations of Art Tatum, note for note. The talent for improvisation that he developed from there took him in a variety of different directions, from spare, serious jazz trio records to more homogenised easy-listening albums. His improvisational extravagance is particularly apparent in the outtakes from his collaboration with Doris Day, an album entitled Duet (1962).

Previn’s break with Hollywood was not as clear and decisive as he often described. His formal conducting debut is generally set at 1963 with the St Louis Symphony, soon followed by his first appointment, as music director of the Houston Symphony Orchestra, a post he held from 1967 to 1969. However, Previn continued to have film credits, including Rollerball (1975), and his work during those years has a combination of high visibility and shocking unevenness – coinciding with the industry-wide decline of the film musical.

The popular but downmarket Valley of the Dolls (1967), for example, shows Previn and his second wife, the singer-songwriter Dory, at their best with the film’s lovely theme song, Theme to Valley of the Dolls, sung by Dionne Warwick. But Judy Garland rebelled against the clichéd I’II Plant My Own Tree – which contributed to her departure from the film. In later years, Previn could only explain some of these embarrassing efforts by pleading youthful ignorance: he was doing the best with what he knew.

Subsequent to his Hollywood years, his main compositional effort was a collaboration with the playwright Tom Stoppard, Every Good Boy Deserves Favour (1977), which has enjoyed a steady stream of semi-staged concert performances with symphony orchestra since its premiere, including a 2009 National Theatre revival.

For years, Previn was known only as a conductor, his London Symphony Orchestra tenure setting the tone for his international reputation in later decades as “a first-rate conductor of second-rate music” (according to the critic Martin Bernheimer). His strongly score-based interpretive stance stemmed from a seminal moment he had early on: he received bad news just before going onstage and poured his sorrow into the symphony at hand, only to be told afterwards that the performance was interpretively incoherent. Thus, his music making had emotional dignity in his earlier years, but often a less satisfying sobriety in later ones.

His London Symphony recordings are often his best, and they are numerous, thanks to such a congenial relationship with EMI that he could phone the company to say that a certain concert was shaping up unusually well, and have a recording team on hand by the end of the week. He championed composers that non-British conductors would not touch at that time, such as Vaughan Williams and William Walton. His hallmark was Russian repertoire: Previn’s discography had more than 250 discs of Prokofiev, and more than 100 each by Tchaikovsky and Rachmaninov. Most important was the first recording of the uncut version of the Rachmaninov Symphony No 2 in the early 1970s: it brought new respect for the symphony, prompting a positive re-evaluation of the composer’s music at large over the following decades.

From left, Trevor Nunn, Tom Stoppard and André Previn at the Mermaid theatre, London, for the play Every Good Boy Deserves Favour. Photograph: Donald Cooper/Rex Features

Previn’s Pittsburgh tenure established further credentials in the French repertoire, and not just Debussy and Ravel. He went through an intensive period conducting Messiaen’s Turangalîla-Symphonie in the late 1970s, and is considered to have greatly aided its dissemination, even though the then radical piece was booed in Pittsburgh.

As time went on with the Royal Philharmonic (where he was principal conductor and chief conductor, 1985-92) critics began noticing a lack of fire in both performances and recordings. Previn’s subsequent return to the US west coast to lead the Los Angeles Philharmonic, starting in 1985 – which might have been the summit of his conducting career – ended in his stormy resignation in 1989. The orchestra’s general manager, Ernest Fleischmann, who was used to operating independently, offered a Japanese tour to the then little-known Esa-Pekka Salonen without consulting Previn – one of several slights that left the conductor categorically refusing to return to the orchestra, even with different management, as a guest.

Though he had short-term relationships as a guest conductor, Previn’s frequent visits to the Vienna Philharmonic were more artistically important, establishing him as a Mozart/Strauss specialist, doubling as soloist and conductor in a Mozart piano concerto followed by a Strauss tone poem. Even later, he became a Bruckner specialist. One of his best, and most overlooked, recording projects was a vigorous, insightful complete Beethoven symphony cycle with the Royal Philharmonic from the early 1990s.

Previn often took his pianistic abilities for granted, but they were prized in many circles, not so much for technical prowess as for the way his fingers revealed interpretive insights with great precision and specificity. His earlier recordings were included in the famous Philips-label Great Pianists of the 20th Century series. Some of his best later-in-life performances were in a piano trio he formed with the violinist Anne-Sophie Mutter (his fifth wife) and the cellist Daniel Müller-Schott. Among his most irreverent anecdotes – there were many – was one about a performance of the Beethoven Triple Concerto in which he was the classical-minded piano soloist, Mstislav Rostropovich was the arch-romantic cellist and Yehudi Menuhin was the technically distressed violinist. As Previn recounted to BBC Music Magazine, the conductor, Leonard Bernstein, was appalled at how badly it all came out, while Menuhin claimed to have experienced something sublime.

As a composer, he broke his silence in 1985 with a piano concerto written for Vladimir Ashkenazy, followed by a series of song cycles, including a collaboration with Toni Morrison, Honey and Rue, for Kathleen Battle in 1992. Soon, he was prolific, writing songs, chamber music and all manner of orchestral works. But despite notable success as a composer for opera with A Streetcar Named Desire and Brief Encounter, he also suffered setbacks: he lost battles for the rights to the Alessandro Baricco novel Silk and the play A Man for All Seasons. Among his orchestral works, his Violin Concerto “Anne-Sophie” is among his most successful, the recording of which won a Grammy award in 2004, one of a total of 10; in 2010 he received a lifetime achievement award. Previn appeared to regard his composing life casually. “There’s a certain amount of self-protection in that,” he once explained. “I have a lot of commissions and it surprises me a great deal. I very often do not like what I write. People like to play it, but the critics say, ‘What a load of crap!’ It’s difficult for me to cope with.”

André Previn in 1977 performing on the piano while conducting the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra in Mozart’s Piano Concert No 20 in D minor, for a television show, Previn and the Pittsburgh. Photograph: Bettmann Archive

Yet composing was his great joy near the end – something that he could do without any buffer zone from his guest conducting, and while waiting for a flight in airports, which he often joked was the most frequent home for this man without a country. His works had deceptive sophistication. Though they were mostly agreeable in a post-Strauss, neo-Korngold fashion, works such as his Harp Concerto are strangely enigmatic in their collage of contrasting musical events, implying a deep meaning for him.

Quite remarkable was his 80th year: though he was so infirm that he had great difficulty walking on and off stage to take a bow, he finished a Concerto for Violin, Viola and Orchestra for Mutter and Yuri Bashmet, and unveiled two exceptional concert works written the previous year – the Harp Concerto for Xavier de Maistre and an orchestral work entitled Owls, for the Boston Symphony Orchestra. He also revised sections of his Brief Encounter opera between guest conducting engagements in Philadelphia and Boston.

Previn composed prolifically until the end of his life, including a yet to be performed Concerto for Orchestra for the Dresden Staatskapelle and a monodrama with a Stoppard libretto for Renee Fleming on the subject of Penelope (Ulysses’ wife) that is due to be premiered this summer at Tanglewood. “A day without music is a day wasted,” he said in 2017.

Previn was married and divorced five times. With his first wife, Betty Bennett, a singer, he had two daughters, Claudia and Alice. With Dory, he had a daughter, Lovely. They separated after his affair with the actor Mia Farrow, whom he married in 1970. Together they had six children, Matthew, Sascha, Fletcher, Summer Song (also known as Daisy), Lark Song and Soon-Yi. In 1982 he married Heather Sneddon, and they had a son, Lukas. Though the stated reasons for his 2006 divorce from Mutter, whom he married in 2002, were vague, it is clear that Previn suffered considerable grief at the end of the union. He referred to Mutter as “my very best friend” and said that they spoke every day on the phone. Previn described their relationship as “the divorce that didn’t work”.

• André George Previn (Andreas Ludwig Prewin), pianist, conductor and composer, born 6 April 1929; died 28 February 2019

Accreditation to the talented writer David Patrick Stearns and The Guardian.

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