Four Oscars, five wives, Previn at 81 keeps going

Reuters, Thursday 13 Jan 2011

Andre Previn has succeeded in more musical realms -- Hollywood, jazz, conducting, composing -- than just about anyone else alive, but at 81, he doesn't rest on his laurels, or spend much time looking back

Andre Previn and Mia Farrow  [photo: Reuters]

"The last time I did a film was in the 1960s," said the man who won four Oscars for his scoring of hit films like "My Fair Lady" and "Gigi."

"I have no interest in doing films, so it's been like 45 years since I last set foot in a studio," he added in a telephone interview from his home in New York, which he ranks as one of his two favorite cities, along with London.

The thumbnail sketch of Previn is a stunning one: in addition to the Oscars, he's been music director of some of the world's best orchestras, including the London Symphony Orchestra which he will conduct this weekend (Jan 16 at the Barbican).

Many of his classical recordings, particularly of works of British composers like Vaughan Williams and Walton (box set, EMI 2 67969 2), won Grammies and regularly turn up on "recommended" lists, while several of his jazz albums in the 1950s and 1960s were big sellers.

He's been married five times, including to the actress Mia Farrow and the glamorous German violinist Anne-Sophie Mutter.

While all those unions have ended, there was "nothing acrimonious about our splitting up," he said, adding that he and Mutter, for whom he wrote and dedicated a violin concerto, "were in touch literally daily."

Not a bad life for someone whose fate might have been very different had his Russian-Jewish parents, acting on a tip from a friendly Nazi contact, not fled Berlin, where Previn was born, overnight in 1938, making their way through France to the United States, where they wound up in Los Angeles.

Had he stayed in Berlin, where he started his piano training, "I would probably still be a rehearsal pianist...with an opera company in Darmstadt, or something," Previn said, while acknowledging that in Nazi Germany, a much worse fate could have befallen him.

Instead, while still a schoolboy, he joined the music department of MGM. Soundtracks provided him with a very comfortable living until sometime around 1960 he decided to give it all up and devote himself to conducting and composing.


"I'm mainly a composer and a conductor and I also play the piano quite a lot but all those peripheral things like movies, jazz and all that...I never wanted to do those for a lifetime anyway."

While his composing efforts sometimes get a drubbing (one critic described the violin concerto for Mutter as sounding like "a nostalgic trawl through memories of everything he's ever conducted"), his works get performed all over the globe.

"I've written more in the last 10 years than I have in the 30 before and it's the thing that gives me the most pleasure. I've written two operas, six concertos, God knows how many chamber music pieces, and the fact they have some kind of life of their own after I put the pencil down is very gratifying."

For the record, the two operas are "A Streetcar Named Desire," which is based on the Tennessee Williams play and had its premiere in San Francisco in 1998, and "Brief Encounter," based on the poignant 1945 David Lean film about a doomed romance between a married woman and a doctor, which had its premiere in Houston in 2009.
And will there be a third?

"Yup, there's another one in the works and I'm not going to tell you what it is...because I want to get a little bit farther on it," Previn said.

So no retirement anytime soon for this octogenarian.
"I often think of how nice it would be to sit someplace on a porch...but I don't seem to get around to it."

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