Music critic Bernard Holland from the New York Times writes of conductor, composer, and multi-genre pianist Andr_ Previn: "If composition causes him sweat, he is loath to show it. Music flows unimpeded through this man. Between the musical thought and the physical act there is instant contact: The thought and the deed seem one." In other words, Andr_ Previn is the real deal, an artist who Holland says "... composes as he conducts and conducts as he composes." For Previn, the perspiration happens backstage, off-camera, at home.
Previn was born into a complicated world: cosmopolitan Berlin of the early 1930s. The Weimar era was on the wane, National Socialism was taking hold, and it was by no account a good time or place to be Jewish. His family emigrated, arriving in America like so many _migr_ Jews, with little money, not speaking a word of English.
The now-mythic Berlin of those years: the extremes of high and low cultures; the panic and uncertainty; and the seemingly endless loop of music heard throughout the city, including Previn's boyhood home: rubbed off on a young musician who would spend the rest of his life refusing to stick to any pre-arranged script, always reaching for what moved him rather than what he ought to pursue. Classical pianist, jazz pianist, composer, conductor, chamber musician: each role contributes to Previn's talent, part of the same musical whole.
After moving to the US, Previn's family settled in California. Perhaps by chance, potentially as a result of proximity, Hollywood beckoned. In his early 20s Previn answered, scoring several films, including The Secret Garden and Bad Day at Black Rock. But his interest in Broadway (which possibly grew out of his keen interest in jazz) led him to be a hot commodity for stage-to-screen adaptations of some of the most important musicals, including My Fair Lady, Paint Your Wagon, Kiss Me Kate, and Gigi.
As a composer Previn's range is vast, having written pieces for headlining artists and ensembles such as Vladimir Ashkenazy, Yo-Yo Ma, Dame Janet Baker, Yuri Bashmet, Ren_e Fleming, Anne-Sophie Mutter, and the Vienna Philharmonic. The San Francisco Opera commissioned his first opera, A Streetcar Named Desire; his second opera, Brief Encounter, will be premiered at the Houston Grand Opera.
As a conductor Previn continued to develop beyond his early studies with the French orchestra conductor Pierre Monteux, accepting posts at the Houston Symphony Orchestra, the London Symphony Orchestra, the Los Angeles Philharmonic, the Royal Philharmonic, and the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra. He has conducted canonical music close to his heart: Tchaikovsky, Prokofiev, Mozart: while also championing American composers like Ned Rorem, William Kraft, John Harbison, and Harold Shapero. As a jazz pianist he has collaborated with Dinah Shore, Julie Andrews, and David Finck, to name a few.
Previn turns 80 in April, and Carnegie Hall will celebrate his birthday by inviting New York audiences to hear his music; to see him conduct; to hear him perform as soloist, chamber musician, and jazz musician: to witness a broad, cross-genre sampling of the many things he does best. He'll perform with The Philadelphia Orchestra: leading Mozart's 24th piano concerto from the keyboard: and he will conduct the Orchestra of St. Luke's in is own work, joined by Anne-Sophie Mutter, Yuri Bashmet, and Ren_e Fleming. With the Mutter-Previn-Harrell trio he'll dish up chamber music by Mozart and Mendelssohn, and two more pieces of his own, including a world premiere. And as a jazzer he'll lead the Andr_ Previn Jazz Trio.
Like so many other birthday tributes, this celebration of Previn promises not to be a final "best of" or a "lifetime achievement" retrospective, but rather a brief pause, a backward glance, and no doubt a tireless move towards his next projects, to Brief Encounter and beyond.
This month Andr_ Previn appears with his Jazz Trio in Zankel Hall, February 19 at 8:30 PM.