Last week, André Previn died at the age of 89. He was known for many things: he was a conductor, composer, and pianist, and his private life was very public (among his five wives were actress Mia Farrow and violinist Anne-Sophie Mutter). During my long career with the Boston Symphony, I played many concerts under Previn’s direction, beginning with the Elgar Symphony No. 1 in August 1985; the last time I worked with him was when he conducted Ravel’s La Valse in August 2009. In all, I played 81 concerts under his baton, including concerts in February 1997 when he led the Boston Symphony Orchestra on a tour to the Canary Islands and Florida.
Previn was born in Berlin in 1929; his name was Andreas Ludwig Prewin. His father was Jewish and in 1938, the family fled the Nazis and moved to Paris and then Los Angeles. He became an American citizen in 1943 and was, to my mind, a thoroughly American musical personality. Previn had a dry wit, a “matter-of-factness” when he addressed the orchestra in rehearsal. His ear was always finely attuned to balance and when, during a rehearsal of Antonin Dvorak’s Symphony 8 he said to an over-enthusiastic brass player, “We don’t need the zenith, apocalyptic fortissimo,” his point was succinctly made. And he had coined a phrase that I and many others have used from time to time.
During that 1997 tour of the Canary Islands, Previn hosted a party for the orchestra. This was a long tradition on Boston Symphony tours, and a generous gesture on the part of the tour’s conductor. Of course, sending the Boston Symphony to the Canary Islands during the teeth of a Boston winter was like letting children loose in a candy story. Many of my colleagues took every opportunity to frolic on the famous beaches and more than a few players came to a concert with severe sunburn. At the party, Previn rose to toast the orchestra. “I’m terribly sorry,” he said as he lifted his glass, “if the concerts are interfering with the tour.” And he sat down. That was Previn. He didn’t need many words to make a point and when he used them, sometimes you just had to smile and muffle a hearty chuckle.
But I first got acquainted with André Previn long before I joined the Boston Symphony and began playing concerts with him. In 1971, I visited our local public library and noticed a jazz trombone recording by J. J. Johnson. At that time, I had heard few recordings of great trombone players. This one got my attention. Recorded in 1962, it was titled, André Previn and J. J. Johnson play Kurt Weill’s Mack the Knife & Bilbao-Song and Other Music from The Threepenny Opera. That’s a mouthful. But here’s what got my attention: Previn got top billing. Who was he? I quickly found out.
The eight tracks – the combo was rounded out with Red Mitchell, bass, and Frank Capp, drums – were stunning in their creativity. Johnson I knew; he did not disappoint. But Previn was someone new to me, and his piano playing was stellar. Recorded in 1962, the recording had a freshness and vibrancy that spoke to me. And as the record turned, I was particularly interested to hear what these two performers would do with Mack the Knife, one of the most frequently recorded songs. What could they do and say that hadn’t been done and said.
They did and said something new. As you can hear in the link above (or click HERE to listen to the track on YouTube), Previn started Mack the Knife with an innocuous introduction in G-flat. No surprise there. But then Johnson came in. In the key of C. The bitonality was shocking. Truly shocking. Then, on the second verse, Johnson played in G-flat and Previn played in C. My young ears had never heard anything like it before. It remains as shocking and wonderful today as it did when I first heard it nearly 50 years ago.
Years later, during a break at a Boston Symphony rehearsal, I asked Previn about that recording session. I wanted to know how they came up with that incredibly creative idea. Previn looked at me and shook his head. “It just happened,” he said. “I vamped an intro and J. J. just started playing in a different key. It all flowed from there. We didn’t talk it through, we didn’t work it out. It just happened.”
Incredibly, this album has been long out of print. It appeared on two CD releases (one was released only in Japan) but they disappeared from the catalog quickly. But used copies can still be found on Discogs and other used record/CD outlets. It’s worth tracking down.
André Previn is remembered by many people for many different things. I’m grateful that I got to play so many concerts with him on the podium. But most of all I’m grateful that I can still be inspired by a jazz album he made with one of the greatest trombonists of all time, and that the creativity exhibited on that disc is still with us.
[Photos of J. J. Johnson and Andre Previn from the back cover of the original issue of André Previn and J. J. Johnson play Kurt Weill’s Mack the Knife & Bilbao-Song and Other Music from The Threepenny Opera, Columbia LP SICP 2384.]