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Music Pianist André Previn, who blurred the boundaries of music, dies at 89

In this Sept. 1, 2004, file photo, André Previn conducts the 15th symphony concert during the Lucerne Festival in the concert hall in Lucerne, Switzerland.

URS FLUEELER/The Associated Press

André Previn, who blurred the boundaries between jazz, pop and classical music – and between composing, conducting and performing – in an extraordinarily eclectic, award-filled career, died Thursday at his home in Manhattan. He was 89.

His death was confirmed by his manager, Linda Petrikova.

Previn wrote or arranged the music for several dozen movies and was the only person in the history of the Academy Awards to receive three nominations in one year (1961, for the scores for “Elmer Gantry” and “Bells Are Ringing” and the song “Faraway Part of Town” from the comedy “Pepe”).

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But audiences also knew him as a jazz pianist who appeared with Ella Fitzgerald, among others, and as a composer who turned out musicals, orchestral works, chamber music, two operas and several concertos for his fifth wife, violinist Anne-Sophie Mutter.

Previn was also the music director or principal conductor of a half-dozen orchestras.

Critics described him as a “wunderkind in a turtleneck” and the “Mickey Mouse maestro” when he was in his 20s and 30s, and he was often compared to Leonard Bernstein, a similarly versatile conductor, composer and pianist. Time magazine’s headline when Previn became the principal conductor of the London Symphony in 1968 was “Almost Like Bernstein.” Newsweek summarized Previn’s appointment as music director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic in 1985 as “Bernstein West.”

Previn himself considered Bernstein an idol. “Bernstein has made it possible not to specialize in one area of music,” he said. “You no longer have to do just Broadway shows, or movies, or conduct – you can do any or all of them.”

And Previn did. In the 1960s, he appeared in sold-out classical and jazz concerts. Sometimes he combined genres, playing a concerto before intermission and jazz with a trio after. Dizzy Gillespie marvelled at his performances: “He has the flow, you know, which a lot of guys don’t have and won’t ever get.”

He made recordings with Benny Carter and Mahalia Jackson and an album of jazz arrangements of songs from “My Fair Lady” with drummer Shelly Manne and bass player Leroy Vinnegar. (Previn was later the conductor and music supervisor for the film version of “My Fair Lady.”) He also made two albums with Dinah Shore and recorded a collection of Christmas carols with Julie Andrews and George Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue” with Andre Kostelanetz.

But the classical world was never comfortable with his work in jazz, and jazz historian Ted Gioia said he became “something of a popularizer of jazz rather than a serious practitioner” as he grew older.

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For his part, Previn disdained all the labels. “I never considered myself a jazz musician,” he said in 1986, “but a musician who occasionally played jazz.”

A Start in Movies

Previn – born Andreas Ludwig Prewin on April 6, 1929, in Berlin – entered in the Berlin Conservatory when he was 6, after his parents realized that he had perfect pitch. His father, Jacob, a Polish-born lawyer who was Jewish and had been an amateur pianist in Berlin, moved the family to Paris in 1938 to escape the Nazis. André studied with Marcel Dupré at the Paris Conservatory for about a year before the family left for Los Angeles. There, Previn studied with composer and conductor Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco, violinist and composer Joseph Achron and composer Ernst Toch. He soon recorded all the four-hand piano music of Mozart with composer Lukas Foss, who was not quite seven years older than he was.

Previn became a U.S. citizen in 1943, and in 1950 he was drafted into the Army and served with the Sixth Army Band. He also studied conducting in San Francisco with Pierre Monteux, whom he later followed at the London Symphony.

A relative worked in the music department at Universal Studios, and Previn wrote music for movies even before he went into the Army. As a senior in high school, he was called in to help with “Holiday in Mexico,” an MGM musical that starred Walter Pidgeon and in which Fidel Castro was an extra. The script called for concert pianist Jose Iturbi to play some jazz, but he was uncomfortable improvising and wanted a score to read. Previn went to a jam session, listened and wrote out a piano part for Iturbi to play when the cameras rolled.

MGM took notice and hired Previn to compose and conduct the music for “The Sun Comes Up,” starring Lassie and once-illustrious actress Jeanette MacDonald, who was allergic to dogs. “Go figure that billing,” he once said.

Years after its premiere in 1949, he gave the movie a thumbs-down: “Like all Lassie pictures, there was hardly any dialogue, but a lot of barking. I thought it was easy, but I have since put myself through the wringer of watching it on a television rerun, and it’s the most inept score you ever heard.”

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But front-office executives realized that Previn could handle the deadlines that went with studio work, and they put him on what he called “an endless stream of cheap, fast movies.”

Not all his assignments fit that description. He collected Oscars for scoring “Gigi” (1959), “Porgy and Bess” (1960), “Irma La Douce” (1964) and “My Fair Lady” (1965). He did not write famous songs like “Summertime” and “I Could Have Danced All Night” – he arranged and orchestrated them, creating the versions heard on the soundtracks.

Like Bernstein, he also tried Broadway. With Alan Jay Lerner, he wrote “Coco,” a musical about designer Coco Chanel that starred Katharine Hepburn and ran for 329 performances in 1969 and 1970. He also wrote the music for “The Good Companions,” a musical with lyrics by Johnny Mercer that ran for 252 performances in London in 1974.

Presence on the Podium

Also like Bernstein, he was a crowd-pleaser as a conductor. Five years after his surprise appointment in London, the British magazine New Statesman complained that he had given the orchestra “a strong American accent: the big-screen sound, rich, loud and brilliant.” But it said his programs on the BBC – which prefigured by a few years the American public-television series “Previn and the Pittsburgh,” broadcast when he was the music director of the Pittsburgh Symphony – had “clearly widened his box-office appeal.”

“Whereas Boulez looks boring and Boult looks bored,” the magazine said, referring to the prominent conductors Pierre Boulez and Adrian Boult, “Previn always seems to be enjoying himself.”

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He remained principal conductor of the London Symphony until 1979 and was also the principal conductor of the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra from 1985 to 1988. In the United States, he held the Pittsburgh job from 1976 to 1984 and became music director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic in 1985.

He resigned in 1989, complaining that the orchestra’s managing director, Ernest Fleischmann, had manoeuvred to bring in Esa-Pekka Salonen as his successor. “It has become obvious to me that there is no room for a music director,” Previn said when he quit. Salonen was named music director-designate a few months later.

An Operatic Turn

As he approached 70, Previn turned to opera, writing “A Streetcar Named Desire” to a libretto by Philip Littell based on the Tennessee Williams play. Renée Fleming sang the role of Blanche DuBois in the premiere with the San Francisco Opera in 1998, with Previn on the podium. Bernard Holland, reviewing the performance for The New York Times, wrote that “it sings very well.”

“There are angry clashes of harmony and key, many Straussian gestures, sweet-as-honey popular melody and the kinds of corporate noodling and mumbling among the strings native to a Ligeti or a Penderecki,” Holland said.

A recording with the San Francisco cast won the Grand Prix du Disque. Previn also won a Grammy Award for lifetime achievement in 2010. He also won 10 competitive Grammys between 1958 and 2004, divided evenly between classical and nonclassical categories.

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His other opera was “Brief Encounter” (2007), with a libretto by John Caird based on Noël Coward’s screenplay for the 1945 David Lean film by that name.

But toward the end of his life, Previn seemed surprised at the interest in his compositions. “I wrote a string quartet that I very diffidently mentioned to the Emerson Quartet,” he told critic David Patrick Stearns in 2017. “And they said, ‘Where is it?’ I’m not used to that.”

In 2017, Fleming gave several performances of a song cycle he wrote, “Lyrical Yeats.” “These brief songs display Previn’s keen ear for the telling detail, for musical gestures that set a mood or conjure an image,” Corinna da Fonseca-Wollheim wrote in The Times when Fleming sang them in a solo recital at Carnegie Hall recital.

In 2018, Mutter played “The Fifth Season,” which she and Carnegie Hall had commissioned. She described it as “rather lighthearted.” “The Fifth Season” was “not a sonata,” she said, “but a one-movement work with jazz and Gypsylike rhythmical elements – which starts with a fully improvisational cadenza.”

This year, Tanglewood had planned several events to celebrate Previn after he turned 90, including a performance with Mutter of the violin concerto and, with Fleming and the Emerson quartet, the premiere of “Penelope,” by Previn and playwright Tom Stoppard.

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Previn wrote several books, including “Orchestra” (1979), a depiction of the lives of orchestral musicians, and a memoir of his movie experiences, “No Minor Chords: My Days in Hollywood” (1991).

Previn’s first wife, Betty Bennett, was a singer he had seen in San Francisco jazz clubs. They had two daughters, Claudia and Alicia, also known as Lovely (who became a violinist in the Irish band In Tua Nua), and divorced in 1958.

His second marriage was to Dory Langan, an MGM lyricist, who, after they separated, recorded several albums as a singer-songwriter under the name Dory Previn, many of them reflections on their breakup and its aftermath. Dory Previn died in 2012.

Their divorce in 1970 was prompted by a well-publicized affair Previn had with actress Mia Farrow, who had been a friend of hers. Eventually Farrow left her husband, Frank Sinatra, and married Previn. They had three children, Matthew and Sascha, who were twins, and Fletcher. They also adopted Summer Song, known as Daisy, and Soon-Yi, who married Woody Allen in 1997.

Previn’s fourth wife was Heather Haines Sneddon. They had a son, Lukas, in 1984, and divorced in 1999, the year he wrote the violin concerto for Mutter. They married in 2002 and divorced in 2006 but continued to perform together.

“You know how people say that their marriage didn’t work?” he said in 2017. “With us, the divorce didn’t work. We call each other every day regardless of where we are. Maybe she’s in China and I’m in Cincinnati, but we find each other. It’s like being very best friends who have a romantic history.”

Complete information on survivors was not immediately available.

Previn seemed puzzled that critics continued to mention his Hollywood past long after he had begun focusing mostly on classical music. “I haven’t done anything else since the mid-60s,” he told The Times in 1991. “I think there’s a statute of limitations here.

“When I go to Tanglewood to teach, the kids don’t know I ever did anything else. Sometimes they see a movie on the late, late show, and they say, ‘Who is that?’ And then I have to confess that the man who manufactured harp glissandos for Esther Williams to dive to was actually me.”

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