Andre Previn sitting and holding a microphone. Photo by J. Adam Fenster, courtesy G. Schirmer/Music Sales.
André Previn: How Lucky I Am Now

André Previn: How Lucky I Am Now

A conversation in Previn’s Manhattan apartment
July 31, 2015—11:00 a.m.
Video presentations and photography (unless otherwise stated)
by Molly Sheridan
Transcription by Julia Lu

As most folks love to opine, throughout most of music history the majority of composers were also prodigious performers and nowadays composer-performers once again seem ubiquitous. This time around, though, it is in large part because the act of parsing music-making into different stylistic categories has largely eroded. But through most of the 20th century, we lived in a musical environment where the Socratic notion of one person/one job reigned mostly unchallenged and the boundaries that separated various genres often felt impermeable. Despite that, some musicians went against the grain and eked out careers in multiple musical roles, as well as in many different kinds of music. But few have done so as successfully as André Previn who—as a composer, conductor, and pianist—has been equally comfortably making music in and for concert halls, jazz clubs, opera houses, Broadway theaters, and the silver screen for three quarters of a century.

Still, Previn is not one to rest on his many laurels–and there are many! A trio recording featuring him on the piano was the first jazz album to sell more than a million copies. He won back-to-back Oscars for his Hollywood work and garnered eleven Grammys for classical recordings he conducted. In 1998, he received a Kennedy Center Honor for his lifetime achievement as a conductor and composer of orchestral music and opera. Now in his 80s, Previn is composing more prolifically than ever before in his life, yet he comes to composition with a great deal of humility.

“I can’t take myself that seriously,” Previn says at the onset of our visit with him in his Upper East Side apartment. “I love writing and I’m very serious about it, but when it’s over, it’s over. It’s not for the ages. I can’t visualize anybody doing my pieces 50 years from now. I’m just glad if they do them Wednesday.”

And yet, the voluminous amount of music that Previn has been writing in recent years is getting performed quite a bit, all over the world.

“I’m very aware of how lucky I am now,” he says with a grin. “When I first started composing, nobody wanted to know. Now, if I write a piece and I let certain orchestras and certain soloists know that I’ve written it, they all want to do it. Well, not all, but a great many of them. All these orchestras that suddenly are doing my pieces amaze me. They don’t care whether it’s new or old or whatever. It’s just a piece of music they haven’t played, which is really the healthiest thing in the world.”

Not caring whether something is old or new has actually been a hallmark of Previn’s current compositional language, something he has acknowledged many of his colleagues are somewhat baffled by.

“John Harbison said you write these big pieces, and all the things that have happened in the last 50 years are absent, like they never happened,” Previn admits. “I said, ‘I can’t explain that. I don’t know.’” For me, music has to be an emotion and my emotions don’t react well to mathematical formulae.”

But surprisingly for a polymath who has been so deeply involved in jazz and motion picture soundtracks and who even wrote a Tony Award-winning Broadway musical with Alan Jay Lerner starring Katharine Hepburn, Previn has no interest in creating some grand polystylistic musical synthesis for the 21st century.

“I never thought of bringing it together; I see no particularly connective tissue between those things,” Previn confesses. “Very serious jazz, I don’t much like. … It’s a well-known fact that the worse the movie, the more music there is. If you have a really idiotic movie, the music never stops, because the poor producer says, ‘Do something.’ So, we all make a noise. It doesn’t mean that there aren’t wonderful scores, but it’s not music that interests me anymore—at all. … There are many Broadway shows I wish I had written, or wish I could get my hands on, but it’s not a lasting ambition with me. I’d rather write an opera.”

Previn, however, also doesn’t like to repeat himself, and he has already composed two highly successful operas—A Streetcar Named Desire and Brief Encounter—both based on classic 20th-century plays.

“I’d write a light opera, for instance,” he offers somewhat cagily. “Tom Stoppard and I are about to start working on a one-act opera. I can’t discuss it, because he doesn’t want me to.”

But we discussed plenty of other things. Not only did we get into extensive details about many of his compositions, we also talked about many other composers and interpreters. He charmed us with some extraordinary anecdotes–including how, when he was a teenage piano prodigy, he got thrown out of Ernst Toch’s home as well as how, many years later, he was able to mollify Olivier Messiaen during a tense rehearsal with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. We could have stayed for hours, but he had more music to write.


FJO & Andre Previn talk in Previn's living room

Frank J. Oteri: You’re writing so much music these days. The only composer I can think of who has been as prolific as you have been at your age is Elliott Carter. For years, he wrote extremely slowly, but he sped up after he turned 80. When I asked him about what changed, he said that he had finally figured out how to write Elliott Carter’s music.

André Previn: That’s very sweet. But also [when we get older] we are all suddenly more aware of the finite term of life and, you know, you want to get it done. I have to make up for lost time because I did not compose seriously for many years. So now in the last ten years I suddenly thought, “Get moving!” I write very quickly and that helps.

FJO: So how long would it take you to write, say, a 25-minute concerto for soloist and orchestra?

AP: That’s a kind of generality. I wrote a harp concerto. I don’t know a goddamn thing about the harp really, so that took a while—but a 25-minute piano, violin, cello, or viola concerto? I don’t know, probably about a month.

FJO: That’s a very short amount of time.

AP: Well, it’s not very good either. My problem and my flaw, if I can pinpoint just one, is that I don’t re-write. I hate re-writing. Once I’m done, I put it away, and it’s over with for me except if I make a mistake in terms of the technical use of the instrument. I once wrote an impossible double stop for viola. I just suddenly wasn’t thinking; the player would have to cripple his hand. So then I’d re-write it—or leave it out; that’s even better! I can’t take myself that seriously. I love writing and I’m very serious about it, but when it’s over, it’s over. It’s not for the ages.

FJO: Really?

AP: Really.

FJO: Not for the ages?

AP: No.

FJO: So the reason you’re fighting against time to write all this music isn’t to ensure a legacy.

AP: Well, that’s an interesting point. When I say not for the ages, I can’t visualize anybody doing my pieces 50 years from now. I’m just glad if they do them Wednesday, which is why I can only write for someone specific. I don’t like to write into the void. I like to know who’s going to play it and where and all that. Then it helps me; it helps me a great deal. I wrote an awful lot for Anne-Sophie Mutter. I know her sound and I know what she can do best. That makes life much easier. I wrote a piece last year—a concerto for trumpet, horn, tuba, and orchestra, which was a commission from Pittsburgh because they had three big stars. That was great fun for me because I don’t play any one of those things. I couldn’t tell you the positions of the trombone and all that, but I have them in my ear, and it helps a great deal that I’ve conducted so much because the sound of instruments and the sound of the combination of instruments are not alien to me at all. I know what I’m doing at the piano, but I don’t write piano music very much.

FJO: Since you mentioned the Triple Concerto, one of the things I find so interesting about the pieces that you’ve been writing is how many of them are pieces for multiple soloists and orchestra. It’s interesting to hear you say that you’re not interested in whether they’re performed 50 years from now, because writing for multiple soloists is somewhat impractical in terms of getting a piece into an orchestra’s season.

AP: Well, it would be impractical if the triple were like the Beethoven Triple, because that’s three [hired] soloists. But a piece for trumpet, tuba, and horn—every good orchestra has three of those good people in them, and the same with the winds. Sitting in the chair you’re sitting in last week was Andrew Marriner, and he said, “We’re all so glad you’ve written a clarinet sonata, a clarinet concerto, and a clarinet quintet. We don’t have enough music. So it’s always wonderful to get somebody to write something.” That’s really the case with those double and triple concertos, because the principals of good orchestras want that, and it’s very unlikely that management would hire three big stars to play those things.

FJO: I think my current favorite of your double concertos is the one for violin and double bass, and that one definitely feels like a star vehicle.

AP: Oh yes, of course, they’re soloists. That was a straightforward commission. The bass player, Roman Patkoló, is a genius player. Anyway, Anne-Sophie wanted a piece for him, and she’s always practical. So she said, “Write me a fiddle part in it because it’ll be easier to place.” And so I did, and he was very nice about it. He said, “Everything is terrific. I love it. But this octave is a little weird for me.” So we changed that. But that’s not because he didn’t like it. It was advice, and I was glad to get it.

FJO: In terms of being practical, these days a lot of people say that one of the most practical things you can do as a composer if you want a piece done a lot is to write for wind band.

AP: I did that.

FJO: The piece is only a year old and already nine different wind bands have done it. That’s amazing.

AP: Nobody’s more amazed than I am, especially since I’m not really a wind band expert. How do I know what trills are possible on a baritone horn? Nobody learns that. But I liked fooling with it. Then when it came out and the sonorities were nice, I was very pleased. And I must say, at Eastman at the premiere, the kids—and by kids I mean between 18 and 25—they could play like demons. They read that stuff as if were the Simple Symphony by Ben Britten. It was really impressive, and I enjoyed hearing them a lot.

FJO: But what happened with your piece is one of the realities of our music scene today. A piece that’s only a year old has already been done by nine different groups. And I imagine it’s going to be done by a lot more, although in a couple years, they’ll probably say it’s an old piece and that they’d rather play something new. But that’s the world of wind bands. It’s the exact opposite of what happens with an orchestra. I can’t imagine a new piece of orchestra music being done by nine different orchestras.

AP: Orchestras tend not to do that. They also get jealous of who else is doing it. But I have a double concerto for violin and cello, and that’s been done a lot. And the cello concerto I wrote for Daniel Müller-Schott—he called me two nights ago from Tokyo where he had done it twice. He was going from Tokyo to Rio, which is quite a jump—and he hates airplanes, too. Anyway, I said to him, “Are you playing it in South America again?” He said, “Oh yes, 20 times.” That’s really terrific, and I was seriously grateful.

But this always amazes me and amuses me in a kind of weird way. I read about the premiere of Rosenkavalier. In the first year, it was done by a 150 companies. Think about that. That doesn’t happen anymore. The whole business of the performance of music is so different now, so different even in the relatively short time that I’ve been around. But when you say it’s an old piece, I know what you mean. It’s quite true. I’m guilty of that too. I say, “Well that’s an old piece; I wrote that five years ago.”

When I was running the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra, I had Milstein as a soloist, and I was doing an English festival—not with him, but the weeks following. There was a double concerto for violin and viola by Tippett which was, as far as I could tell, impossibly hard. So I went to our concertmaster, Fritz Siegel, who was a wonderful player, and I said to him, “How would you do this?” He said, “You got me. I have no idea how you even attack this particular passage. Would you mind if I asked Milstein.” I said, “Not at all.” So he went and said, “How would you play this?” And Milstein looked at it and he said, “I wouldn’t! I wouldn’t go near it; it’s impossible and it’s not worth it.” And Fritz said, “But I’ve got to play it.” And he said “Why?” And he really tried to stop him from playing it because it was too difficult. And I know what he means, too, because it wasn’t worth quite the effort that would have to go into it. So soloists have a tendency not to [play much new music]. With the exception of Anne-Sophie, I must say, who’ll play anything you put in front of her. Gil Shaham is another one who can play anything.

FJO: In terms of playing anything you put in front of her, there are so many violin concertos in which the violin soars way over the orchestra, but I can’t think of any other piece that’s as full of ledger lines as your first violin concerto—it’s practically a sopranino violin part.

AP: Anne-Sophie said to me, “Write a lot for me way, way upstairs; I love playing up there.” I said, “Fine.” The piece ends with the highest practical note on the violin.

FJO: But when I listened to the recording of this and followed along with the score, I couldn’t help but wonder who else will ever be willing to play this.

AP: I don’t care.

FJO: You don’t care?

AP: No. Really. But when I teach—which is not very often, but at Tanglewood and what not—I know that the technical know-how of the students now is way bigger than it used to be. They all have technique to burn. I remember I paid some compliments to a young fiddle player, and Anne-Sophie kind of brushed her aside. I said, “She plays all the notes.” And she said, “Honey, everybody plays all the notes nowadays.” She’s got a point. Things don’t seem as daunting technically as they used to.

On the cover of the world premiere recording  of Previn's Violin Concerto, soloist Anne-Sophie Mutter in a red dress stands next to Previn who is wearing a black shirt and holding the score.

For the world premiere recording of Previn’s Violin Concerto, the composer conducted soloist Anne-Sophie Mutter and the Boston Symphony Orchestra.

FJO: So maybe that Tippett Double Concerto isn’t so hard any more.

AP: That’s possible.

FJO: And nowadays there are all these dedicated new music players in New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, and all over Europe who can play the trickiest as well as the most impossibly notated stuff anyone could possibly imagine.

AP: I read today about a premiere of a new opera by Wolfgang Rihm. It’s evidently fearfully difficult. But I also know Wolfgang very well, and he doesn’t think about that. He just writes down what he wants to write down. It’s like Strauss’s famous remark when, at the first rehearsal of Till Eulenspiegel, his horn player said, “Excuse me Doktor Strauss, this can’t be played.” And Strauss said, “I write it; you play it.” Quite right, too. And it’s been played.

FJO: I want to return to something you said a little earlier that I didn’t jump on at the moment, but I’ll jump on it now—you haven’t written that much for piano.

AP: That’s quite right. I don’t know why. I can’t answer that. I wrote some variations which Manny Ax played for a while, but I don’t write for the piano very much.

FJO: Perhaps this ties into the piano being your instrument and you wanting to write for other people. But you have certainly written significant piano parts in some of your chamber pieces, like your sonata for clarinet and piano as well as your songs.

AP: My accompaniments to songs tend to be a little difficult. I just finished eight songs for Renée Fleming and her pianist, poor girl, she was here, and she said, “Maestro, these are really hard.” And I hadn’t thought of that. I mean, I thought of it, but I thought if I can play them, anybody can play them.

FJO: So, let’s take a piece like your latest sonata for violin and piano, which also has a formidable piano part. Did you write this music for you to play yourself?

AP: That second violin sonata, which I like very much, was for Anne-Sophie and her accompanist, Lambert Orkis, and he plays brilliantly. He said, “God, did I have to practice that!” And I felt like saying, “Well, it’s tough.” But he can play it. A lot of people can play it. They can all play everything now. But if I write for the piano, I tend to let my fingers wander and I’ll write it down. I don’t do it the other way around, which is better. But when I write for any other instrument—clarinet, trumpet, whatever—I don’t have the facility with which to test it. So I write whatever I can think of. And that helps a lot.

FJO: So in terms of your process for all of these pieces, you write to paper from your head. You’re not sitting at a piano working on stuff beforehand.

AP: No, but I have to be honest with you. After a certain amount of time, I will go to the piano to test it out, to play what I’ve written and see if it sounds the way I hope it will.

FJO: This gets into the whole dichotomy of pre-compositional structural design versus intuition. You were a prodigious improviser at the piano, an active jazz pianist for many decades. You could sit at the piano and invent stuff. But that’s a very different process than hearing something in your head, putting it down on paper, and then testing it at the piano.

AP: Oh yes. Ellington said that good jazz is instant composition, which is exactly right. But again, I don’t think about it in terms of preparation versus intuition and all that. I’m just sitting there playing. I don’t take it so textbook seriously. I read Charles Rosen’s book; it’s remarkable, but man, some of the language really throws me because I don’t know what he’s on about half the time. He attributes certain philosophical aspects to what he’s written or what he’s played that it would take you longer to figure out than it would the piano part.

FJO: So this whole idea of, say, a string quartet as a metaphor for a family, or a concerto as a metaphor for an individual versus the society—you don’t think about these kinds of things.

AP: No.

FJO: Do you think in terms of sonata form?

AP: Yes, I do. And I also love variations. But I don’t find it difficult to think in sonata form. I found a book a couple of months ago—Beethoven’s book on figured bass. Did you know there was one?

FJO: No.

AP: I didn’t either. I can say clearly and decidedly that I didn’t understand a word of it, but I thought I better. So I started working on it, and of course it made sense. But again, I’m not much of a researcher. Yehudi Wyner is very fond of saying, “This time when the theme comes, it’s an F-sharp and not an F because that day his wife had a cold.” I say, “What are you talking about? He’s a composer. What if he just liked the F-sharp?” “That’s not good enough.” I said, “Yes, it is.” And we had a terrible fight.

FJO: So there are no hidden ciphers in any of your scores.

AP: No, the best I could do is maybe say this F-sharp is here because I’ve used F already. But I don’t mean it to imply that everything is instinct. It isn’t. I work very hard. But I don’t believe in writing music to suit a theory. The other way around maybe, but this is why I will never be a 12-tone composer.

FJO: It’s interesting to hear you say that, since so much music during the 20th century—which you’ve been active as a musician through—was dominated by various –isms, whether it was serialism, minimalism, post-minimalism, totalism, spectralism, indeterminacy, or microtonality. There were all these different camps, but you managed to stay clear of all of them.

AP: Well, maybe that’s ignorance. But, on the other hand, that lapses over into performing, too, because I know a couple of the early music champion conductors who have 7,000 theories about why you can’t have vibrato here and you can’t do this. They are very great specialists in that, but give them a chance to conduct Swan Lake, and they’re off and running. They want to. So I’m not so sure that it’s ingrained.

FJO: Well, I guess what is ingrained in you is that you’ve been immersed in music since you were a child.

AP: Yes.

FJO: And so you’ve heard and interpreted so much music in addition to your own, that all of it is very deep within you. It’s second nature. So while you might say that you didn’t initially understand Beethoven’s figured bass book, you probably have internalized all of Beethoven’s solo, chamber, and orchestral music from your experience as an interpreter. You might not be a scholar of it per se, but it seeped in in a profound way—the same with pretty much all of the standard repertoire through to Richard Strauss, whom you’ve also mentioned today.

AP: Sure. I can’t argue with that, that’s perfectly true. And the music that I love, I love no matter who’s playing it. That’s a kind of a wild statement, but people who say they can only listen to Brendel’s Schubert are missing quite a lot. So when I read in certain very intellectual reviews that “this phrase shouldn’t be that fast” or “this should be softer,” first of all, says who? Second of all, they don’t ever seem to say, “But my God, it’s beautiful music!” They get stuck on how it’s played. And how it’s played is not that important, I don’t think.

Previn dressed in a tuxedo conducting an orchestra with a baton in his right hand and gesturing with left hand,

One of the many action photos of Previn conducting an orchestra. (Photo by Chris Lee, courtesy G. Schirmer/Music Sales)

FJO: That’s an interesting opinion coming from somebody who was a conductor for decades.

AP: [laughs] Well, of course, except in the case of me! No, I just think that people who say I can’t listen to Toscanini’s Beethoven—which for instance Colin Davis said and I know why and all that, and I don’t disagree with him all the time—it’s a great piece, interpreted a certain way that does not happen to please the certain person who is reviewing it. But it doesn’t lessen Beethoven any. It doesn’t matter. Yet still, I was in a record shop in Munich with Anne-Sophie, and there was a woman—a nice lady, about in her 40s—who said, “You have a series of packages of the complete works of Bach. I’d like to see that.” And the woman at the cash register said, “With who playing?” “I don’t care.” Well, Anne-Sophie and I almost fainted, because it was an interesting way to buy a record, but on the other hand, if you wanted to be complimentary, you could say she loved the music so much she didn’t care who played it. But that’s not quite the source that warrants that.

FJO: No, unless she wanted to get familiar with the repertoire.

AP: Well yeah, that’s right. But the complete anything I find dangerous anyway.

FJO: Now to take these comments about the open-endedness of interpretation back to your own music, you said that you write for specific people so there’s a specific sound that you’re going for.

AP: Yes.

A bound score of Previn's Violin Concerto sits on top of a row of bound scores that fill up Previn's shelves.

A bound score of Previn’s Violin Concerto sits on top of a row of bound scores that fill up his shelves.

FJO: But when you write a score and let it out into the world, it becomes this thing that theoretically anybody could play in any country and at any time if they have the requisite technical facility to pull it off—and sometimes even if they don’t. There’s sort of a built-in anonymity to it in the sense that they’re playing what’s written on the page to serve the composer who created it and it’s important for that composer’s identity to come across first and foremost which is why that woman could go into a record store and say, “Hey, I want Bach.” Bach is obviously not there; he didn’t make records. But he is there in these notes he put on the page that the interpreters playing his music translate.

AP: Yeah.

FJO: After looking at a number of your scores I was curious about how much control you are willing to let go of in terms of pieces. What is sacrosanct? What isn’t?

AP: Oh, a lot of it is not. I mean, I want the notes played, but how they’re played—if you have a good soloist, whether it’s a second oboe player or a great pianist—really doesn’t matter. If it’s a good musician, let them alone. See first what he’s up to. I’ve had people like flute players who play [Prélude à] L’Après Midi [d’un faune] and I think, “Where did they get that from?” But I liked it, and it made me admire the piece even more. So when I write something and it is interpreted in a way that I had not thought of, very often I’ll like it. I won’t prescribe it, but I will like it. On the other hand, I don’t like arrangements very much. You know, when people say, “Yes, but this is easier with two hands instead of one” or “I’m going to go up a tone.” No. That I don’t like!

FJO: So if someone were to do a song of yours in another key.

AP: Well, wait a minute. If we’re going to talk about singers, that’s a whole different world.

FJO: O.K. I’m going to save vocal music for later. Let’s stay with instrumental music for now. If someone were to take your clarinet sonata and say, “I want to do this on viola.” The Brahms clarinet sonatas are also done on viola. Would you have a problem with that?

AP: Yes and no. I would not have a problem because it’s nice to have somebody play the music. But I would have a problem because it’s not what I thought of.

FJO: Now one of the things I find interesting, in getting back to this second violin sonata, is you leave a lot of dynamics up to the players, which I found fascinating given your decades as an interpreter, both as a pianist and as a conductor. I was quite surprised that you were willing to let that go.

AP: Well that’s interesting. I don’t leave it up to orchestra players because they have to play all that I’ve written down. But I must say that the really good interpreters that I’ve written for—like Anne-Sophie, Yo-Yo Ma, or Yuri Bashmet—if they suddenly say, “This would be wonderful if it were pianissimo and senza vibrato,” I’ll say, “Well, try it.” And if I like it, fine. So I don’t mind that.

FJO: But that’s the thing about the way we disseminate music that is notated. You talked about the early music conductors being really scholarly about a work. A hundred years from now, they’re not going to be able to call you up. So, how are they going to know what to play? Your urtext might be missing some important detail like a dynamic marking. Maybe they’ll have access to a recording, but recordings can only tell you so much. Then again, at the very beginning of this conversation you said that that’s not really of interest to you.

AP: Well, I think that a hundred years from now, there will be just as many good musicians as there are now. They’ll have their own opinion, and that’s O.K. with me.

FJO: You mentioned earlier that you will never be a 12-tone composer, to which I responded that you have pretty much stayed clear of all the –isms of 20th-century music. Even though your music is very much of our time, it sometimes sounds as if all this other stuff that happened didn’t happen for you, in a way.

AP: You know who said exactly the same thing about me was John Harbison. John Harbison said, “You write these big pieces, and all the things that have happened in the last 50 years are absent, like they never happened.” And I said, “I can’t explain that. I don’t know.” For me, music has to be an emotion and my emotions don’t react well to mathematical formulae. On the other hand, I admire a pupil Schoenberg had called George Tremblay. He wrote good music, and I like some of the rows that he invented very much. One of them I stole blind. But when I hear somebody like Boulez, who has a phenomenal mind, say that he finds Puccini tawdry. Well, fine. But it moves me. The last act of Bohème or the beginning of Turandot are irreplaceable for me. And the more they go for the throat in the interpretation, the better it is for me. I love it.

FJO: And talk about a great orchestrator.

AP: Oh? You know, as an orchestrator myself, I take a look at some of the Puccini opera orchestrations, and there’s nothing on the page for Christ’s sake. There’s so little written down, but it’s perfect. It’s absolutely perfect. I think that he wanted to have an emotional impact, and he certainly was successful at it. When people say, “Well yes, but at the same time, you had so-and-so and so-and-so and they were much more intellectual”—fine. I know that Elliott [Carter] said that he would call any place purgatory that played Rosenkavalier. It’s a funny line, but I don’t understand it. I don’t understand it because Rosenkavalier is irresistible for me. There are moments I don’t like—Baron Ochs and all that—but that’s neither here nor there. I think you have to surrender to music as it’s played, not on a cheap level but on the level of being emotional about it, which is why I love Rachmaninoff. I adore Richard Strauss, and this is why I like the Berg Violin Concerto more than I do, let’s say, Elektra. I wish I had a really textbook or lecture-worthy reason for this, but if music doesn’t get to me, to put it bluntly, it doesn’t exist for me.

FJO: Well to further riff on John Harbison’s comment about the last 50 years being absent in your music, one of the most important things that has been happening in music during the last 50 years, and something that you have been involved with for the last 70 years, has been jazz.

AP: Yeah. Sure.

FJO: You mentioned the piano variations you wrote for Manny Ax which were based on Haydn. To my ears that’s actually is the most modernist-sounding music you’ve written.

AP: I haven’t heard it in years.

FJO: But there’s an even earlier piano variations that you recorded back when you were a teenager that you called Variations on a Theme which you probably also haven’t heard in years. It was coming out of stride piano, but it also hinted at Debussy and Hindemith. It’s wonderful. It’s one of my favorite things of yours.

AP: Well that’s nice. Thank you.

FJO: I felt like you were continuing the path that Bix Beiderbecke took with In a Mist, the only solo piano recording he ever made shortly before he died so young. He was never able to follow up on that really organic synthesis of jazz and classical music, but it sounded like you were and that you had possibly gone even further with it.

AP: Well, but you see, if I were to pick up a pencil and say, “I’m now going to write a jazz-influenced piece,” you’d have a bigger point than you have. But I don’t do that. If it comes out, it comes out. It’s the point I’ve made all along in our conversation today. Sometimes I write a phrase and I suddenly think, “Well, this would be nice if it were phrased like a jazz phrase.” But I don’t set out to do it. It’s so interesting that even in jazz, new things are looked askance. I personally don’t understand what Ornette Coleman was about. The fact that Lenny Bernstein got up in the audience at Birdland and ran up to the stage and kissed him is beyond me. O.K., be that as it may. I know that my father was a good musician, but not professional. He was a lawyer. I played him some Charlie Parker records once, and he thought it was a looney child blowing ad libitum into a plastic saxophone. He couldn’t hear it. He just couldn’t hear it. And I find it intensely moving. So again, it depends on what you grow up with. The heroes of your youth remain the heroes. For me, my goodness, could Art Tatum play the piano, and Oscar Peterson!

Oscar Peterson and André Previn playing together during their series for BBC Four television, which was originally broadcast in December 1977, is a particularly satisfying jazz piano summit. The entire series can be streamed from Encore Music Lessons.

AP: And certainly Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie were major people. On the other hand, Ellington’s music is wonderful, but I’d rather hear the Basie band, because the Basie band is really basic.

FJO: It’s really about groove.

AP: There used to be a black Baptist church near where I used to live in Bedford Hills and they had a chorus that I absolutely adored. And I took Ray Brown, the bass player, there once and I was jumping all over the place. I loved it so much. And he said, “You’re an idiot, man. If you had them play what they’re singing on instruments, you’d have the Basie band.” Of course, he was right. So there are all kinds of jazz available for admiration, just as many as there are of classical pieces, I think.

FJO: You said that you didn’t understand what Ornette Coleman was about, but I tracked down and listened to a recording you made with someone who had been doing some pretty radical things with jazz a few years before Coleman started promulgating harmolodics—a composer, arranger, and bandleader named Lyle “Spud” Murphy.

AP: Oh my God. Yeah.

FJO: You were the pianist in his big band.

AP: On one record.

FJO: It’s actually the most out jazz piano playing I’ve ever heard from you, particularly on a track called “Fourth Dimension.”

AP: Really?

FJO: And it’s wonderful.

AP: I don’t think I’ve heard it since we left the studio.

FJO: That was in 1955.

AP: Oh please.

FJO: What attracted me to it is that he claimed what he was doing was 12-tone jazz. In fact, the title of the album is Twelve-Tone Compositions and Arrangements. As soon as I saw that title, I wanted to hear the record.

AP: You got me. I didn’t hear that.

FJO: I don’t hear it either. It’s very chromatic though. They use all the intervals, so I guess that’s what he meant by 12-tone, as opposed to any kind of systemic serial ordering.

AP: If that’s what enticed him to write, then he’s right. It’s perfectly O.K. I don’t care what you call music.

FJO: I’d like to talk with you some more about what you were starting to say about there being a generation gap for likes and dislikes, when you described your father’s inability to appreciate Charlie Parker.

AP: As I told you, my father was a musician. When I was a kid, the Los Angeles Philharmonic played one of the first performances of the Bartók Concerto for Orchestra. Well I went, and I was floored. I thought it was the most ingenious, happy, wonderful piece I knew. I went home full of excitement and I said to my father, “I heard the most wonderful piece.” He asked what it was and he didn’t know it. But he said, “If you’re that excited by it, they’re doing a repeat performance of it tonight. I’ll take you.” So, I said, “Great.” And we went and we heard it again. And at the end of it, this old gentleman with a German accent said, “Well, it’s not the Eroica.” At that point, I kind of sank in my chair, and I thought, “It’s not supposed to be the Eroica. It doesn’t try to be the Eroica. Why should it be the Eroica?” But he was serious; he didn’t think it was that good, so forget it.

The same thing happens with jazz. But the very, very serious jazz, I don’t much like. I can’t think of anybody right now who’s doing it, but I never thought that Boyd Raeburn was that impressive. It’s a lot of dissonances. On the other hand, I don’t like the Preservation Hall Jazz Band; that’s too primitive for me. I don’t like folk music very much. I certainly hate Hawaiian music, or any of those things.

FJO: Really. I’m a huge fan of Sol Ho’opi’i, an incredible Hawaiian guitarist who made a bunch of dazzlingly virtuosic recordings in the 1930s. He might change your mind.

AP: Yeah? Well, I’ll have to hear it. I don’t know. On the other hand, do you know Conlon Nancarrow’s music?

FJO: Yes, of course.

AP: Isn’t that wonderful?

FJO: Very.

AP: No matter how off the wall that gets, I’m impressed and I love it. And I also get a big charge out of it. I think it’s wonderful. I couldn’t duplicate it, but it’s wonderful. It is quite amazing how different ears receive different music. You know what I mean? I do not particularly like Saint-Saëns’s music, but my goodness, he was a great musician. You know, talk about writing fast and a lot, and if I hear somebody good playing Saint-Saëns—whether it’s a violin concerto, or cello or piano, or even one of the symphonies—it impresses me. I love it and I’d love to hear that again. Whereas the more scholarly of my colleagues say, “I don’t want to hear that again.” Why not? Because it’s not the Eroica?

FJO: It’s interesting when you say Saint-Saëns, because the music of his that I really treasure is his chamber music. And I actually feel it has a connection to your output, since he too wrote a great clarinet sonata and a really formidable bassoon sonata.

AP: And that wonderful septet. Isn’t that fun?

FJO: Absolutely. But, to bring it back to how people come to determine what they like and what they don’t like, the folks who say that something is not the Eroica are a curse to anyone who wants to write a piece of music, because we’ve got that history behind us.

AP: That even floored Brahms before his First Symphony. He didn’t want to write Beethoven’s Tenth.

FJO: And, as you said, it’s true for jazz too—anybody getting on a stage or a club who is trying to do something new on the saxophone or on the piano faces the same dilemma as anybody writing a new piece of music—whether it’s a string quartet or a new orchestra piece. You’re inevitably going to get compared to the stuff that came before that people have heard and think is great. That’s not to deny that it is great, but it’s been heard so many times before that people know it and accept it as great without having to determine that for themselves, so it’s very difficult to compete with; something new doesn’t come pre-approved the same way.

AP: I know what you mean. When I did Turangalîla with the Chicago Symphony, they hated it. Oh God, did they hate that piece! And the old man was there, Messaien. After the first movement, which is considerable, I said to him, “Is there anything you want in this?” And he said, “Well, could it be a little more pink?” And I said, “A little more pink? You mean, plus rose?” “Yes.” Then I turned to the fiddle and I gave him a look that would have wilted a gorilla, you know, and I said, “The composer would like it to be more pink.” And Sam, the concertmaster, turned around to his section, and he said, “Boys, more pink.” And that was it. It was great. It was a wonderful way out because what he was saying really is, “Screw you. Are you kidding?” But, he got what he wanted.

FJO: It’s interesting to hear that story because I swear by the recording you made of Turangalîla with the London Symphony Orchestra in the 1970s. But I heard the Chicago Symphony perform Turangalîla at Ravinia in the 1990s, which I imagine was long after you had performed it with them. They must have gotten used to the piece by that point since I thought they did a really tremendous job.

AP: Even with me, they could play it. My God, they could play anything. That last movement is so rhythmically complicated; it’s like The Rite of Spring times two.

FJO: But you raise an important issue in terms of how to most effectively negotiate with players in order to overcome their resistance to playing a new—or at least a relatively new—piece of music.

AP: Well, there are always people in the orchestra who will feel that way, but they’re usually in the minority. But I’m very aware of how lucky I am now. When I first started composing, nobody wanted to know. Now, if I write a piece and I let certain orchestras and certain soloists know that I’ve written it, they all want to do it. Well, not all, but a great many of them. All these orchestras that suddenly are doing my pieces amaze me. They don’t care whether it’s new or old or whatever. It’s just a piece of music they haven’t played, which is really the healthiest thing in the world. That’s what happens in Tanglewood. I had a piece called Owls, and the student orchestra played it, and they didn’t know if it was modern or old-fashioned or tricky or whatever. It was just a piece. There it was in front of them, and they played it. It’s wonderful.

FJO: I know you said that there are no secret messages in your music, but there’s something that’s been baffling me. I can’t figure out your title Octet for Eleven. I was rummaging through the score thinking, “O.K., it’s for eleven players but maybe only eight people ever play at once, and that’s the trick.” But there’s a tutti where all of them are playing. So what does the title mean?

AP: A corny joke. That’s all it is. The joke is that there is no octet for eleven people. I like tricky titles. I also like Honey and Rue. I like all that stuff. I just thought it’s an octet, yes, but I did put an extra bass in it and this and that, so let’s call it Octet for Eleven. I hate to disappoint you, but there’s absolutely nothing behind that.

FJO: I wanted to follow up on the comment you made earlier about early music conductors not wanting vibrato based on historical considerations. There’s also a question of intelligibility when it comes to sung text. One of the things that’s so striking to me about your two operas is that you can always hear the words that people are singing, which is not true for many operas sung in English.

AP: I’m probably very annoying to singers, because I want to be able to hear the words. There are all kinds of technical things. I’m not much for putting one syllable on 14 different notes the way it can be done. I like one note per word, you know. Then very often I’ve said to singers whom I even admire or adore, “Could you sing more oratorio and less opera?” They all know what I mean, and they usually comply. I don’t like terribly operatic singing. It disturbs me; I don’t understand the words and, unfortunately, I sometimes think it’s funny. I like operatic singing, but it depends on what opera, you know. I find some of the most admired operatic singing, which is Wagner, alien to me. I find it too aggressive and I think it’s tough on the voice; it’s certainly tough on the words. On the other hand, if you do Pelléas or Manon or Wozzeck, then it’s worth having whatever they bring to it. In A Streetcar Named Desire, I knew that Renée [Fleming] had three big arias, but none of them are really huge operatic arias. And besides, Renée is much too smart to ever put the voice to purposes that it wasn’t meant. The same thing with Elizabeth Futral in my other opera, Brief Encounter—she’s a wonderful singer. But she started out in full cry, and I said, “Don’t do that. I’m always going to fight you on that. Can you kind of calm it down?” And she did instantly, and it was ten times as good for me. Whether it really is or not, I don’t know, but that’s one of the privileges I take hold of as the composer. I want it sung the way I want it sung.

Cover of the DVD case for the San Francisco Opera production of A Streetcar Named Desire

A DVD of the San Francisco Opera production of A Streetcar Named Desire was released shortly after the 1998 premiere, but it is currently only available in a PAL format reissue from Arthaus that can only be accessed with a Region 2 player. However an audio recording of the production was also released by Deutsche Grammophon

FJO: Well, an opera is supposed to be telling a story on stage. You mention Wagner. Things happen so slowly in those operas. In a way, they have to because if they didn’t, you wouldn’t know what was going on. But both Streetcar and Brief Encounter are fast and action-packed. Words need to be flying back and forth, so a long melisma wouldn’t deliver it; it would be completely wrong. I think you did precisely the right thing.

AP: And also, Streetcar is one of the great American plays. It really is. It’s wonderful. But it is not a play where you want to linger over every syllable. I got confused by Antony and Cleopatra because Sam Barber is one of my favorite composers, but he’s very fond of putting a syllable onto four or five notes. By the time four or five notes have gone by, you don’t know what the first one was. If he were more aware of getting the words into the auditorium, that would not happen. But I can’t argue with Sam Barber, because he’s a great composer.

FJO: Well, with Vanessa it really worked. But once again, that’s a story with few characters and long, drawn-out action, whereas Antony and Cleopatra is this giant pageant and there’s a lot going on. So it’s much harder to process.

AP: Yes.

FJO: It’s important for the music to fit the story it’s going with. Still, no matter what, if you’re writing work for an opera house there are certain conventions that singers conform to, as well as conventions that audiences expect or things that the halls that are built for these things serve best. It’s a catch-22 for American composers. Tons of composers are now writing operas, but not everyone wants to write things that sound like operas. For a long time, you could never get a new American opera programmed; thankfully that has changed. But, in part because of this exile from the opera house, composers turned to other outlets and there’s a whole tradition of a vernacular American opera—the music for Broadway theater. In musicals the words always get across, but you’re not necessarily dealing with singers who can sing music off the page in the same way.

AP: You mean, like Marc Blitzstein?

FJO: Blitzstein is an excellent example. There are many others. You, in fact, also wrote a Broadway show, Coco.

AP: Yeah, but it was a straightforward Broadway show.

FJO: Admittedly, the technical demands you placed on singers in it were nowhere near the level of your operas. Katharine Hepburn would have never been able to sing the role of Blanche Dubois!

AP: She couldn’t sing Coco either. Oh God, that was brutal. When she finally quit after a year, we got Danielle Darrieux. It was the first time Alan Lerner and I knew we had written a musical, because you could hear the words and the melodies. And she was charming.

FJO: But it didn’t last because she wasn’t the box office draw that Hepburn had been.

AP: No. It didn’t last at all. Everybody wanted Hepburn. I didn’t blame them. She’s wonderful. But, in a musical, I don’t know.

During the 1970 Tony Awards, members of the original cast of Coco, including Katharine Hepburn, performed excerpts from the show. The original Broadway cast album was reissued in 1997

FJO: So that experience turned you off to writing another Broadway musical?

AP: It depends on what the subject matter is. There are many Broadway shows I wish I had written, or wish I could get my hands on, but it’s not a lasting ambition with me. I’d rather write an opera. I’d write a light opera, for instance. Tom Stoppard and I are about to start working on a one-act opera. I can’t discuss it, because he doesn’t want me to.

Broadway now is so different. When I was a young man, Broadway wasn’t owned by Walt Disney. And all these ridiculous, foppish, stupid musicals that are on now! They’re not interesting musically or visually or anything. Well, Lion King is. But the goal of a Broadway opera is completely different now, I think. I don’t think that Rodgers and Hart, or Jerry Kern would be such a smash now.

FJO: I recently went to see The Visit, which was the last show to make it to Broadway that John Kander wrote with Fred Ebb before Ebb died.

AP: Really? I didn’t know that.

FJO: It only lasted a couple of months even though the cast was headed by a Broadway legend, Chita Rivera. It was a fascinating show, but it might have been a little too serious for the current climate on Broadway.

AP: On the other hand, the musical based on The Shop Around the Corner was one of my favorite musicals. It’s absolutely charming and not at all too serious. But it was not funny. It was witty. And there again, it didn’t last that long. St. Louis Woman is also a wonderful show. I like Broadway musicals, but I tend not to go for a whole bunch of reasons. First of all, the mystique that goes with it makes me nervous. And then $200 a ticket makes me nervous. I come from the day when a Broadway show was five bucks.

FJO: I remember when it was 12 bucks, but now tickets at the Metropolitan Opera can be even more expensive than Broadway tickets. So, in that sense, it’s not different.

AP: No, but you know going in what you’re going to hear. You know, if a ticket for Wozzeck is $200, well, you spend it because you want to hear Wozzeck, not because you wonder how this is going to be.

FJO: Not if you’re going to a performance of a brand new opera. That’s as risky as going to a new Broadway show.

AP: Well, I have no answer for that. New music, generally speaking, is looked askance at.

FJO: Of course in creating a new piece, it can help assure an audience that they’re going to see something of consequence when they know that it is based on something that they know is of consequence. It’s perhaps the next best thing to knowing that the Eroica is on the program, to come back to that conversation. It’s probably why there have been so many operas based on pre-existing literary classics. You certainly are always drawn to great literature. You mentioned Streetcar being one of the great plays. In Brief Encounter, you were also working with great material—the original play by Noël Coward, as well as the David Lean film. And you just mentioned a new project with Tom Stoppard, with whom you’ve worked before, who is a famous, highly respected playwright. But even your songs—you’ve set Emily Dickinson, Toni Morrison, Michael Ondaatje. These are all top-shelf people. When I did a talk with Ned Rorem, he said the reason why his songs are good is that he only sets the best texts.

AP: He’s probably right. I also love the prose that I set by Isak Dinesen. It’s a terrific paragraph and very touching. I’m not about to set music to drivel; it doesn’t interest me. I like Theodore Roethke, and there’s quite a lot that needs to be set.

FJO: Now there was an Italian novel you were going to make into an opera. What happened to that?

AP: What happened is that the man got greedy and sold it to a higher bidder, long after we were in discussions about it. So it never happened.

FJO: So someone else did an opera?

AP: I think it was played once in Topeka or something. But it didn’t work.

FJO: Of all the texts that you’ve set, that was the only text and the only author I hadn’t heard of.

AP: It’s a very strange novel, but very good. But no, it didn’t happen. The man— you couldn’t blame him. He just suddenly got an incredible offer and the poor bum said “Sure, anything” and took it away from us.

FJO: So in terms of other things that you want to write. You mentioned Brahms waiting so long to write a symphony based on feeling paralyzed by the weight of what had proceeded him in the genre. Is that the same reason you haven’t written one?

AP: Yeah, I’m just scared of it.

FJO: But you’re not scared of operas or concertos?

AP: It’s that first page. I can’t deny that. I don’t want to face it. But I probably will; if I get old enough, I’ll write one.

FJO: Now, one area that we haven’t touched on yet at all is that you spent years writing scores for motion pictures. I think that was probably an excellent training ground for writing music that pushes a narrative forward.

AP: Oh, I don’t. It’s a well-known fact that the worse the movie, the more music there is. If you have a really idiotic movie, the music never stops, because the poor producer says, “Do something.” So, we all make a noise. It doesn’t mean that there aren’t wonderful scores, but it’s not music that interests me anymore—at all. And I mean, I did it; I wrote for some 50 movies. But I could not face as an ambition, years from then, writing music which would be played while Debbie Reynolds spoke. What would interest me as a composer is if they still made those big swashbucklers. You know, The Sea Hawk or something—that’s fun. I’d love to do that with a great big Strauss orchestra—eight horns belting away. But the normal score now? It doesn’t interest me at all. I admire Johnny Williams. He’s very good at what he does, and he writes very good themes. Now, Anne-Sophie made him an offer. She said, “Why don’t you write me a concerto?” And he said, “Oh, I don’t write that kind of music.” And she said, “Yes, you do. You write beautiful themes.”

FJO: But he wrote a trombone concerto?

AP: Did he?

FJO: It’s a pretty solid piece.

AP: He also wrote a bassoon concerto, which I like very much. Anyway, he back pedaled on that, but she kept asking and just recently he said, “Look, I’m not going to write one. I’m just not. I can’t do it. I haven’t got the background for it, and I don’t think I want to.” And she said O.K. But she said to me, “This is silly, because I’d play it everywhere.” I’ve known Johnny ever since we were both rehearsal pianists at a ballroom dancing school on La Brea Avenue. We used to take turns playing “Blueberry Hill.” Oh boy. Anyway, I don’t think he is willing to gamble with his own talent. He’s wonderfully talented and a tremendous orchestrator, but he doesn’t believe it. And a big piece—it’s a lot of pages. I don’t think that he has belief enough in his own talent, even though he has more than enough talent to do it.

FJO: Maybe it’s taking him too far out of his comfort zone in terms of the context.

AP: Comfort zone? He’s a millionaire.

FJO: I mean his comfort zone creatively.

AP: Oh, sure.

The original LP cover of My Fair Lady performed by Shelly Manne and his Friends (Previn and Leroy Vinnegar) features a woman wearing an elaborate hat drinking a cup of tea.

The cover of the 1956 Contemporary Records LP My Fair Lady by Shelly Manne and his Friends (Previn and Leroy Vinnegar) which was the first album ever made consisting entirely of jazz versions of tunes from a single Broadway musical and was the first jazz album to sell a million copies.

FJO: What I find so interesting about the trajectory that you have taken as a composer is that you seem to be always doing things you haven’t done before. You became really successful as a jazz pianist; one of your albums was the first jazz record to sell a million copies. But you started writing Hollywood scores. After you made your mark doing that, winning four Oscars, you wrote a Broadway musical. After all that, you started writing for orchestra, then opera. Last year you finally wrote a wind band piece. So you’re always purposefully escaping your own comfort zones.

AP: Absolutely. I’m a big believer in that. But I think for a composer to suddenly decide, “O.K. I’m now going to write a piece for 12 gongs,” it’s not really an interesting idea. I sat next to Wolfgang Rihm at one of the Siemens Prizes a couple of years ago. They give annual awards to young composers, and they had two of them there. One of them had written a piece for 12 unaccompanied E-flat clarinets. Can you imagine that noise? It was beyond belief. Halfway through, I turned to Wolfgang and I said, “Am I crazy, or is this just a piece of shit?” And he said, “Oh, it’s not good enough to be a piece of shit.” Just to be different isn’t good enough anymore. It just isn’t. It’s like the young instrumentalists who can play everything you put in front of them but not necessarily with understanding.

I like trying something new. I like it very much. I wrote a nonet—double string quartet and bass—just now. It hasn’t been played yet. It’s going to be premiered at the Edinburgh Festival in two months. And Anne-Sophie called me and said, “The first movement isn’t long enough; can you write me a cadenza?” But I’d done that [before]. So then I thought she had that wonderful bass player in the nonet. So I said, “Why don’t I write you a cadenza where you are all over the place and he never stops playing anything but pizzicato? That might be interesting.” And she said, “Really?” And I said. “Really, I think so.” And she said, “Good.” So I’m working on it. I have no idea whether it’s any good or not, but it’s something I haven’t done.

FJO: So that’s actually an example of you going back into a piece and changing it!

AP: Well, adding to it. But only under the threat of “we won’t play it.”

FJO: That’s a big threat. To bring this full circle: in the beginning I referenced Elliott Carter’s flippant comment about writing faster in his old age because he had learned how to write Elliott Carter’s music, but he actually wasn’t writing the same music at all; he was actually writing things that were completely unlike his earlier things.

AP: I love that 20-minute opera he wrote.

FJO: What Next?

AP: Yeah, wasn’t that good? I’m not a big Elliott Carter believer, but that was wonderful.

FJO: Learning how to write the music that you write is the opposite of taking a challenge, the opposite of doing something new. So you don’t want to write a piece you’ve written before. You may not necessarily want to write for twelve E-flat clarinets or eight gongs, but you want to do something different. You’re not going to write a straight-ahead violin cadenza, because you already have written one. Of course, the most effective composers are always balancing what they know they do well with taking on new challenges.

AP: If I were still working with films, which I haven’t done now since the mid ‘60s, I would probably fall back on certain clichés that I know work since I don’t want to spend a lifetime at it. Johnny Williams wrote in Tanglewood in the bungalow next to mine, and then he’d have his orchestrator [Herbert Spencer] come up and he’d hand him whatever he was working on. Johnny handed him something that looked like Meistersinger for God’s sake, and he said, “Let me explain this to you.” Herbie looked at the music, and he said, “No, I know this one.” The orchestrator didn’t mean any insult at all, but it was funny. I could see where he could take that very badly. But on the other hand, it was probably true. It was probably done on purpose. If you write movie music, you’re never given enough time, and they don’t want to hear anything brand new anyway. So it is very likely to be things that they’ve done before. You can always tell a Korngold score. You can always tell a Rózsa score. You can always tell an Elmer Bernstein score, because it’s watered down Copland. When Elmer Bernstein got a western to do, he’d say, “Oh yeah, I did Magnificent Seven. Let’s do that again.” There’s nothing wrong with it. It worked very well. It’s interesting music. You’re not going to wrack your brain thinking of novelties in a medium that doesn’t require it anyway. A very good film composer used to be a man called Jerry Goldsmith—brilliant and interesting music.

André Previn's four Oscars sit together on a table near the window in his living room.

André Previn’s four Oscars sit together on a table near the window in his living room.

FJO: You did all these different kinds of things as a composer—jazz, film music, Broadway, opera, orchestral music. You also were very active as a classical pianist and, of course, as a conductor, leading some of the world’s top orchestras—the Los Angeles Philharmonic, the London Symphony. But these activities have been separate worlds. If anybody was ever in a position to come up with some kind of grand synthesis of music in our time, which would be music that somehow connected all of these things, it would be you. To that end, you did in fact make some wonderful recordings of all your original music for quintet featuring Shelly Manne, Red Mitchell, and Jim Hall with you and Itzak Perlman. It seems completely incongruous that these people played together. And yet it really works.

AP: Yes, it works.

FJO: But it’s an anomaly. For the most part, it seems like you’d rather just perfect each separate strand rather than bring them together.

AP: I never thought of bringing it together. I see no particularly connective tissue between those things. I wrote a jazz album for J.J. Johnson and myself and a rhythm section, and the producer of the record, Irv Townsend, said, “Would you guys try playing ‘Mack the Knife’?” Well, that was the day when everybody did “Mack the Knife,” and both J.J. and I went, “Hmmm.” And I said, “I’ll tell you what, J.J. I’ll comp in G-flat, and you play it in C, and then we’ll turn it around.” It’s always in both keys; it’s that Petrushka thing. And we did it and everybody said, “God almighty, what a sound!” There’s nothing to it. You know what I mean? We just played it. We didn’t think about it. I think that it’s important that you don’t spend forever thinking about why you write something. Just do it.

This is out of left field, but Sinclair Lewis gave a lecture. I think it was at Harvard. After huge applause and all of that, he said to the very full auditorium, “How many of you want to be writers?” A great many raised their hands. And he said, “Why aren’t you home writing?” That’s good, isn’t it?

FJO: I heard a variation of that story, only it was Kurt Vonnegut who gave the speech.

AP: Really.

FJO: But he was a lot nastier to everybody, at least according to the version I heard. Maybe Vonnegut stole the line from Sinclair Lewis, but he embellished it. He was invited to give a talk to a group of aspiring writers at a university, so he went up to the podium and began by saying, “How many of you want to be writers?” And after almost everyone raised their hands, he shouted, “So why the fuck are you sitting here listening to me? Go home and write.” And then he walked out. That was the entire speech.

AP: But that’s too rough. Walking out is beyond the pale. It’s interesting that you used that language.

FJO: Well, I was just using the language he used.

AP: I understand. When I was at Eastman, there were two afternoons of question and answer. There were about 800 kids at each one, and the questions were very good because they weren’t all complimentary. They were all over the map. On the second day, a young man got up in the back and said, “When you worked in films, did you work in Los Angeles?” “Yes,” I said. “Did you ever a meet a German émigré composer called Ernst Toch?” I said I was taken to play for him by David Raksin, who was a friend of mine. “What happened?” he asked, and I said:

Well, the old gentleman made me improvise and then made me read something at the end of which he said in this kind of station house accent, “You haff no talent.” First of all, I don’t think it’s the right thing to say to a 16-year old. The other thing is that if he had said, “I don’t like the way you improvise,” that’s fair enough. Or “I don’t like the way you play.” Fair enough. But “You have no talent”? That’s a little heavy for me, because I didn’t agree with that.

And the kids did a collective intake of breath, huuuhhh, because they identified with that moment. And the young man said, “Did you answer him?” And I said, “Yes.” And he said, “What did you say?” I said, “Fuck you.” This was from the stage of this conservatory. The poor dean turned green with fear, you know. And I said, “Wait a minute. They’ve all used that word. They all know what it means.” It was the biggest round of applause I have ever received from students.

FJO: But how did Toch react to that?

AP: Oh well, he threw me out. But I’m still glad I did it.

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4 thoughts on “André Previn: How Lucky I Am Now

  1. Rob Saman

    Andre Previn is one great musician that I grew to look up to during my musical foray throughout my life. It’s nice to know that he continues to keep entertaining all of us.

  2. Mark N. Grant

    Wonderful interview with a fabulous musician. I wonder if Ernst Toch’s bitterness over the eclipse of his reputation in America (attested by Nicolas Slonimsky) led him to be grouchy and mean at times. He was not without humor: his “Geographical Fugue” for spoken chorus is an extremely witty, amusing piece, and used to be a musical best-seller. (But his sense of humor probably didn’t extend to putting the words “Fuck you” into the text of the fugue.)

    Raksin probably had lots more to say about Toch in his enormous, lamentably unpublished 250,000 word memoir which William Frohlich of Northeastern U. Press told me about years ago. Frohlich was trying to get Raksin to cull it to a publishable length but by that point Raksin was into dementia. A tragedy. I think a butchered version of Raksin’s manuscript may have been published after his death privately but I’d wager all the details about his love affairs etc. probably got deleted.

  3. Scott Lazarowitz

    This terrific interview covered just about everything, thanks for doing it.

    I love Mr. Previn’s Piano Concerto, premiered in 1985 with Ashkenazy, Previn and the Royal Philharmonic. That is included in Ashkenazy’s 40th Anniversary with Decca box set that I have, although I see that it’s now out of print. (But a CD of that is still available on Amazon along with Mr. Previn’s Guitar Concerto.)

    The Piano Concerto sounds very influenced by Shostakovich and maybe a little Rachmaninoff in the first movement. The 2nd movement is a lengthy, penetrative “Theme and Variations.” It’s really a great piece. I hope for a revival of this Concerto, as it seems to be as worthy a piece as the Rachmaninoff Third or the Bartok Concertos, in my view. Any chance of that?


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