André Previn died on February 28th although I didn’t find out about it until a few days later when I read Jay Nordlinger’s appreciation (well worth reading) at National Review Online. Previn, born Andreas Ludwig Priwin in Berlin, got out of Germany before the Nazis could get him out of existence, which is quite a thought in itself.
I recall Previn discussing his youth in an interview—probably in the seventies—and two things stuck with me over the years. One was the escape to a new life. His father, a successful lawyer, loaded the family into their car for a day-trip to France—no luggage, just the clothes on their backs, and, for all I know, a book two for the journey—and never returned. After a brief stay in Paris, it was off to the United States. The other detail I remember was his brief recollection of his education at the gymnasium while still in Germany. The days were long, and discipline, well, German. Did his classmates and he complain? No, he said, they just figured that’s the way it was for everybody. Is there a lesson there for American educators?
Previn was the kind of guy who had it all, and I don’t mean just prodigious talent. He had that, all right: a gifted pianist, jazz and classical, arranger and composer for film (four “Oscars”), the concert stage, and later opera (eleven Grammy Awards). But he also had an enviable combination of intelligence and ease that made him an ideal ambassador for the classical music world, largely through the medium of television in shows such as Previn and the Pittsburgh. Yet he was never overly flamboyant at the podium, and, so it seemed to me, an ideal conductor for the concerto soloist; indeed, some of my clearest memories of him are from performances at the head of the London Symphony Orchestra with Arthur Rubenstein playing Chopin and Saint-Saëns, happily available on YouTube and still a great pleasure to watch and hear.
Previn was, as Nordlinger points out, such a gifted writer that he might easily have made a career in that field. If my memory serves me well, he was also one of those disgusting people with a knack for languages. As for the matter of women, to put it simply, he was magnetic, and if that makes no sense—I mean, that a small, maybe not unattractive but surely not Clark Gablesque figure could intrigue women—all I can say is, sense has nothing to do with it. He was married five times, and I suspect if he had lived longer and kept his health, might have managed a sixth.
My first memories of Previn are of the jazz performer. My dad adored jazz and had a decent collection of LPs, which, when he wasn’t reading, he listened to in the privacy of his library after a hard day at the office. The rest of us could hear the thumping bass through the walls, but if we opened the door—a not entirely unwelcomed moment—we’d likely find Previn’s piano filling the room.
I can’t recall liking much of Dad’s beloved jazz except the then-famous recording by Previn with Andre Kostelanetz of Gershwin’s Concerto in F and Rhapsody in Blue. That mesmerized me, and pretty soon, with my sister’s urging, I was listening to more of Previn’s rather stylish (maybe at times too stylish) playing on the albums Like Blue and Like Love.
Dad also had the famous pairing of Previn with Doris Day, Duet. Nordlinger (who has far more musical knowledge in his pinky than I do in my whole body) speculates that Previn coaxed a sexy performance out of. Of course, I can’t know for sure, but I suspect that if anybody had told that to Previn, he would have said the sexiness was already there. Just listen to her “Sentimental Journey” with Les Brown (sung, as Oscar Levant once quipped, before she became a virgin), and you’ll get the idea.
A website dedicated to Previn has been up for quite a few years. It’s badly in need of updating by whoever created it, but it’s still interesting to see his answers to various questions (likely posed by himself). What would be his greatest tragedy? “Deafness.” Who is his historical hero/heroine? “Thomas Jefferson.” Biggest historical monster? “Adolf Hitler.” Favorite painter? Velasquez and Matisse. Mostly interesting although, here and there, predictable. But, then, there’s “My hero in real life.” Answer: “Daffy Duck.” Who’d have thought it?
If Previn had any serious flaw—and surely he had many—it is the lack of any religion or any he cared to discuss. On the website’s “Current spiritual orientation,” all Previn can say is “The mind of man.” One may glean a wealth of wisdom and learning from the various products of the “mind of man,” but absent Christianity’s just and merciful Father/Savior and the Jewish Creator/lawgiver, how will one oppose the monstrosity of a Hitler, Stalin, or Mao? The question must have occurred to a man who fled Nazi Germany, but, if so, the website offers no clue.
No, Previn wasn’t perfect, but he was both a phenomenon and a thorough delight. He will be missed.