Barbara Bonney salutes André Previn – conductor, composer, cultural polymath
As a longstanding member of the André Previn fan club, it has been a privilege to work with him over the past 20-odd years. We first met in Tanglewood during the fabulous Seiji years when the gang, including Yo-Yo Ma, John Williams, Itzhak Perlman and Manny Ax used to hang out and just have a blast making music together.
How can you help but have an instant spark with André? He is one of the wittiest and most charming people on the planet. Right away there was a chamber music-style appreciation in our communication. We knew we could do wonderful work together. And after Tanglewood, we collaborated all over the world, from New York to Vienna. He composed music for me and I love singing for him. Musically, I would place him in the same field as Mozart and Richard Strauss, composers who loved the soprano voice and adored writing for it. André understands voices and the things he has written for me and for Renée Fleming are just amazing – outpourings of expression for the eternal female. His vocal writing is very complicated, difficult to learn, but it sounds effortless, direct and honest. There is something of life in that; complexity that you have somehow to translate into a direct and honest approach. Born in Berlin, brought up in Vienna, he has lived all over the world and done seemingly everything. He is a truly international, multi-talented guy. The way he plays piano is astonishing beyond belief. He is a magnificent conductor. A great composer. He is also one of the great raconteurs and one of the funniest people I have ever met.
Of course the danger with someone so funny is that he’ll say something just as you’re about to go on stage, you’ll be laughing your head off and then find that your voice doesn’t work! But making music is so easy with André, it is simply an extension of your friendship. It always works, it’s always fun.
There was one great moment in 1993, when I was at the Metropolitan Opera and a call came through. André needed me in Vienna the next day to substitute for Kathleen Battle in concerts of Carmina Burana which, to add to the pressure, were being recorded. I rushed over to find that Vienna was intensely hot (this was before the Musikverein had air conditioning). By the time I was due to stand up to sing my first number, we were all sweating profusely. I was nervous and uncomfortable, and as the orchestra was retuning André leaned over and said very clearly, “Can we all go take a shower now?” With the microphone right there! Of course I started laughing but it diffused the fear factor. He makes you giggle at yourself, he stops you taking it all so seriously and then you perform better.
If he is less revered as a conductor than some others, it is because he is not a show-off. He is self-deprecating and the thing I love about him the most is that he stands behind the music. Some other performers make it all about themselves, while André puts the music first. I have always tried to do that as well.
That’s not to say that anybody stops him being a truly great musician. The story that sums up his spirit is the one about his audition for George Szell. He turned up to play the piano for the fearsome conductor, only to find that there was no piano. Undeterred, Previn “played” the piece on a table. “Too slow,” muttered Szell. Previn replied, “I’m used to tables with a quicker action.” He got the job! That’s André – he’s cool and relaxed, he does his thing and if someone doesn’t like it, too bad.
He has always inspired me, with his spectacular skills at the piano, his fantastic charisma and honesty on the podium, and his ability to turn a wistful text into a powerful song. André, your talent leads the way, and your friendship has sustained many of us over the years.