by Stephen Cera
He was one of the supreme boundary-crossing musicians.
André Previn, who died on February 28 — a few weeks short of his 90th birthday — enjoyed early success in Hollywood. Yet this proved a mixed blessing in the transition to a more intense focus on classical music. While his celebrity and multi-faceted gifts opened doors, the move toward classical drew a skeptical response at first. Over time, and thanks to the support of esteemed colleagues, Previn came to be admired as a seasoned maestro who deserved great respect.
I was living and studying in London in the 1970s during his heyday as principal conductor of the London Symphony Orchestra (LSO). During that era, he was also hosting “Andre Previn’s Music Night” on BBC television, straddling multiple musical genres, exuding a fresh image.
I attended memorable concerts by Previn with the LSO in the Royal Festival Hall, including Prokofiev’s Piano Concertos played by Vladimir Ashkenazy, a keyboard titan at the height of his powers. (I also attended the Kingsway Hall recording session when Previn helmed the LSO for Ashkenazy’s benchmark recording of Rachmaninoff’s Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini.)
In that repertoire — and much else — Previn’s professionalism and musicianship were irreproachable. He exhibited a special kinship with Rachmaninoff, Vaughan Williams, Prokofiev, Walton, and others. A few years later, I experienced his deeply-felt rendition of Rachmaninoff’s Symphony No. 2, with the Pittsburgh Symphony.
A brilliant keyboard virtuoso, Previn performed and recorded Rachmaninoff’s pianistically daunting Suites for Two Pianos, as well as the Symphonic Dances (for two pianos) with Ashkenazy. Their contributions are nearly indistinguishable, and that says it all.
Whether partnering a jazz giant like Oscar Peterson or Ella Fitzgerald, or a classical giant, Previn was in congenial company.