Conductor / Composer / Pianist  André  Previn

A Conversation with Bruce Duffie


André Previn is one of those few talents whose expertise transcends diverse areas of the musical spectrum.  His work in jazz and film are legendary, and his devotion to the classical arena is also of the highest quality. 

In March of 2005, he was touring with his Oslo Philharmonic, and included on the program was his Violin Concerto played by his
previn then-wife Anne-Sophie Mutter.  [Names on this page which are links refer to my interviews elsewhere on this website.] 

Though his time in Chicago was short, he was gracious enough to allow me to visit him backstage after a rehearsal for a conversation. 

As I was setting up the recorder, Previn mentioned that he would like to go right then and play more music . . . . .

Bruce Duffie:    You’ve just come from rehearsal and you want to go and play more music???

André Previn:    Yes, but there’s a fine difference between want to and I should.  When you’re on a tour the days are not your own.  But we had a good rehearsal, a good solid three hours, and most of it worked so we’re all right.

BD:    Are you rehearsing the orchestra for technique, or are you rehearsing the hall for the technique?

AP:    Both.  First you have to get the notes right, and then the balance of things always changes with the hall.  This is a particularly lively hall, so we have to adjust to it.

BD:    I assume, though, that the notes and everything were rehearsed before you started on tour.

AP:    Oh, yes!  My God, yes, of course.  And also we’d played the program before.  The only thing we had not played in Oslo was the Ravel Scheherazade.  That was the first time just now.

BD:    Is this the first stop on the tour?

AP:    Yes.

BD:    So you’re just getting started, but you’ve been on enough tours to understand and know what’s going on.  Do the programs get better as you progress through the tour, or do they get more tired?

AP:    If it’s difficult music, once the orchestra is completely sure of itself, of course it gets better.  The other thing — and I know this sounds like an excuse, but it isn’t, I swear
— even if the tour is sensational, if you then hit a really bad hall it can demoralize the orchestra completely.  Conversely, when you hit a very good hall it really helps.  But sometimes you get those halls in places where you don’t expect it.  In Europe everybody says, “Yes, of course, Vienna and Amsterdam,” and all that, but there are places, like in Dortmund, which are great!  There’s a great hall there and nobody is aware of it.  You never have time to rehearse on a European tour, so once you play the first couple of hours, you can see the orchestra, no matter how tired they are, come back to life.  It’s nice.

BD:    Do you then remember that for the tour three years hence?

AP:    Oh yes, and so do they.

BD:    When you’re organizing programming for the tour, is it similar to the concerts at home or do you put on special programs that you take around?

AP:    No, we don’t put on special programs.  The presenters in various cities had a lot to say about it, too.  We give them a rather large choice of material, and they then say, “With us, piece X isn’t going to work; we’ve just had it.  But piece Y would work much better, and we haven’t had any French music in a while.”  They have lots of reasons, and so you adjust back and forth and you finally come up with it.  It’s difficult with the whole orchestra, because sometimes you suddenly realize that you’re taking along seven extra players for three weeks in order to play one piece, and financially that is just death.  But this is a very fine and very flexible orchestra, and they do very well.

BD:    Is it special that you’re bringing a piece of your own composition?

AP:    I’m bringing my own wife, too!  My Violin Concerto was commissioned for her by the Boston Symphony, and she did the premiere.  Then she said, “I’d like to go with the Oslo Orchestra, and I’d like to play it with them.  I’d like to play it on the tour.”  There you are.


BD:    So that made the decision for you.

AP:    Mm-hm.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:    You’ve composed throughout your career, and yet in the last ten years it seems that there’s been a lot more coming from your pen.

AP:    Oh, a lot more.  It used to be something I liked to do once and a while, and now the ratio is almost equal to conducting.  I’m hoping that within, ooh, I don’t know, within five years from now, eight years from now, it’ll be turned around where I do mostly composing, because I do love to do it!  The other thing is that it’s a great luxury which can be done anywhere.  I can stay home, I can sit on a mountaintop, I can do anything.  There
’s no schedule.  It’s wonderful!

BD:    Can you do it on tour?

AP:    Oh, yea.

BD:    I just wondered if the pressures of the tour would make it harder to keep the mind alert for your new ideas.

AP:    Yes, but if it’s a big enough piece you can’t stop.  When I was writing my opera, Streetcar, I was on tour for some of it with the Boston Symphony, and I kept composing every day.  Composing begins to take on a life of its own, and luckily I compose reasonably fast.  For instance, I was commissioned to write a quartet for the Emersons, and I wrote the quartet in about three weeks, which is very fast.  Yet at other times I would start something and get stuck.  Then I have to put it away for a while.

previnBD:    But eventually the ideas come?

AP:    Oh yes.  [Laughs]  This may not be the most laudable of reasons, but I had a rather peculiar background as a composer, having done films.  There, nobody waits for you to be kissed by the muse.  They say, “Listen, this better be ready,” and you go in and you move the pencil.  Sometimes you do it better than others, but you have to get it done.  And in its own way, it’s a very, very good training ground because I’m very disciplined about composing.  I write something every day.  Very often I throw it all out, but I write something down.

BD:    Do you know when you’re writing that it’s going to be in this piece or in that piece, or do you wait and find a piece for it?

AP:    Oh, no.  I don’t write into the blue.  When I’m writing on a piece, I work on it every day.

BD:    But if you’re working on a piece and you get a brilliant idea, do you ever know it won’t work in this piece but it would work in a different kind of piece
not an orchestral piece, but a flute solo or something else?

AP:    That’s a very interesting question because it’s something that I discussed with Dutilleux once.  I said, “Don’t think I’m crazy, but did you ever start working on a piano quintet and suddenly realize that what you were writing was a string quartet?” and he said, “Absolutely.  Absolutely.  It happens all the time.”  I was very pleased to hear that because I always think I’m being very amateurish when that happens.  But, no.  Suddenly you realize no, this is not a bad piece; it’s a good piece, but I’m using it in the wrong place!

BD:    So then you’ll reframe it?

AP:    That’s right, yes.

BD:    You must get a ton of commissions or offers for commissions.  How do you decide yes, I’ll take this one, or no, I’ll turn that one aside?

AP:    First of all, I’m always flattered by the commissions.  I’m always fascinated that somebody somewhere on the map is thinking, “Oh, let’s have a piece by him.”  It amazes me, but it happens more and more.  As you say, and it is true, that right now I could be working on six things, which I can’t, and I have a fear of agreeing to something and then having to turn it down.  So I always make sure that I can get it done before I accept it.

BD:    So how do you decide which ones to accept?

AP:    It’s not a clear-cut answer.  Very often it depends on who’s asking.  If it’s the Boston Symphony, or the Vienna Philharmonic, or Renée Fleming, I’m going to say yes.  On the other hand, very often a conglomerate of orchestras commission things now.  That’s a new thing where three or four smaller orchestras get together and commission a big piece, and then you get three or four premieres right away.

BD:    Is that helpful to know that your piece is going to be heard in three or four different cities?

previnAP:    Oh sure, yes, just from a crass point of view, if nothing else.  But I do like to write.  I love to write, and John Harbison said to me once, “I don’t love to write, but I love having written,” which is a very fine point.  So I’m always working on something or other.  I’m working on my second opera now, and I’m working on a harp concerto, of all things, but those are all because they’re commissions.  I very rarely write into the blue and I’m sorry that I don’t.  I’m sorry that’s gone out of fashion.  You see those pictures of the composers communing with nature and waiting for the first bar...

BD:    When you’re composing, are you meticulously working out everything, or are you hearing it in your head and transcribing?

AP:    No, I’m meticulously working it all out, although I very often do the time-honored thing in bad movies, and that is that I’ll wake up at three in the morning and I’ll get up and scrawl something down.  I may not like it the next morning; I may not even recognize it, but I put it down.  I do get ideas at any and all times, but then, once they become concrete enough to be worked out into a piece, then I really work them out.

BD:    So, you’re working it out and you’re working it out.  How do you know when you’ve got it right?

AP:    Never!  [Both laugh]

BD:    Never???

AP:    No!  No, no.  There are pieces of mine that I like very much, but even with those, there are moments where I thought, “No, that isn’t quite what I meant.”

BD:    But at some point it becomes engraved.

AP:    Oh sure, and it’s a good thing, too.  At some point they take it away from you, and that’s a very good thing.  Quite a few of my colleagues hate turning something in to the copyist or to the publisher, and I’m convinced that it’s because once that happens the piece is no longer theirs.  It belongs to whatever’s going to happen to it, and until that happens they can always say, “Well, no, I’ve kept this behind because I’m still working on it.”  But once you turn it in, that’s it.

BD:    Are they like your children that are out there fending for themselves in the real world?

AP:    Yes, I think so.  I don’t know whether this’ll make sense, but I get lists by my publishers as to what’s being played where in the world, and I will see suddenly a piece of mine that I wrote four, five, six, seven, eight years ago that’s being played in Brussels or in some city in Germany or in Sweden, and I think, “How the hell did they get it?  What made them think of it?”  I’m so pleased by it, so flattered that somebody in those cities said, “I have a good idea... let’s play this.”  It knocks me out!  I don’t know where they get it from.

BD:    Perhaps from hearing a recording?

AP:    No, these are pieces that are not recorded.  What’s recorded has a whole different kind of life.

BD:    Let’s move into that just for a moment.  Once one of your compositions is recorded, is that a good thing?  Are you pleased with most of those recordings?

AP:    Yes.  I’m pleased with most of them.  First of all, I’m pleased by the fact of them.  Certain ones I’d like to do again, but mostly it’s all right.  I don’t have the kind of self-satisfaction or self-esteem that allows me to say, “Oh, that’s great now.”  I never think it’s great, but I sometimes think it’s good enough.

BD:    Is there such a thing as a perfect performance?

AP:    Not by me.  [Laughs]  No, I wouldn’t think so.  I tell you, though, that yes, there are perfect performances when you don’t expect them.  I can’t talk about my own pieces, although, for instance, when Anne-Sophie plays my violin concerto, I always think it’s a great piece because she plays it so mind-blowingly perfect.  That’s one thing.  Then there are the pieces you’ve had that have been around for years.  Last year there was a recording that came out of Krystian Zimmerman playing the Rachmaninoff First Concerto.  I bought it because I like Krystian Zimmerman, and I have a soft spot for Rachmaninoff.  I played it, and I tell you even after having played that record about twenty times and a year has gone by, I still think it’s the best piano playing in the world!  I’ve just never heard anybody play that way, and if I could play four bars that well in my life I’d be very pleased.  The piece, of course, is geared to be played by a virtuoso, so it’s a wonderful record.

BD:    Are you writing for virtuoso performers?

AP:    Sometimes, yes.  The Violin Concerto is terribly hard.

BD:    Did you write it to be hard, or did you write it because that’s the way you want it to sound?

previnAP:    That’s the way I wanted it.  Then you get people like my wife, Anne-Sophie, for whom no technical difficulty exists, which is both admirable and terribly depressing because it doesn’t make any difference what I hand her, she just says, “Oh, yes, that’s fine,” and plays it.  The same thing goes for certain singers I’ve written in the last year.  I was very lucky.  I wrote for Renée Fleming, for Barbara Bonney, and for Janet Baker that I liked very much, and there’s never any problem with those.  That’s fun to do.  I wrote a piano piece for Ashkenazy, and that was no problem, so those turn out to be on purpose virtuosic, or rather, at least on purpose merciless.  You can write anything you can think of, because they’ll play it.

BD:    These people then perform your works.  Does it surprise you when others, perhaps unknown to you, also play it, and come almost up to that standard?

AP:    Obviously some people that I don’t know play my pieces, but I haven’t heard them.  If I see that so-and-so in Koenigsburg is playing some variations of mine, I’m not going to go, but I’d love to hear it.

BD:    But I would assume that occasionally ears that you trust would say to you, “He or she really nailed it.”

AP:    Oh, yes.  I don’t doubt that.  If nothing else, the technical proficiency of people now is so unbelievably much better than it used to be.

BD:    So it’s continuing to progress?

AP:    Oh, yes!  Technically, yes.

BD:    Is the musicianship continuing to progress?

AP:    No!  [Laughs]  Not really, but of course it is.  You can’t have somebody who really plays great who hasn’t any idea of what the music’s about.  There are exceptions, but it used to be that if you found somebody who could really nail every note on a virtuoso piece, it became legendary.  Now, everybody who graduates from Juilliard can do it.  It’s really hard.

BD:    Does that please you at all, or dismay you?

AP:    It doesn’t dismay me.  I think it’s quite wonderful that there are so many wildly gifted young people in the world, but not all of them should wind up as concert artists, I don’t think.  There’s too many of them.  There are getting to be fewer and fewer orchestras and fewer and fewer records, and more and more pianists, so I don’t quite know where it’s all going to go.

BD:    But I will still ask you where music is going these days?

AP:    Oh no, you’re not going to get me on that one because that’s a hopeless question.  I don’t know where it’s going.  My wife and I talk about it quite often, because we tend to still love some of the legends.  For instance, in the way of violinists, her favorite is still David Oistrakh, and so is mine.  Then I like Milstein.  I like Heifetz.  And where are they now?  There aren’t that many people like that around, and until you get those kind of beacons, those lighthouses, then the lesser people tend not to show up.

BD:    Then let me ask the real easy question.  What’s the purpose of music?

AP:    I’d have to give you just as pretentious an answer as it is a question!  [Both laugh]  No, I think the purpose of music is to make people who hear it feel that there is something better going on than that which they’re usually concerned with.  I think that you really do get a glimpse of immortality, and of unalloyed, pure pleasure and joy out of music, and you don’t get it from anything else.  So I’m very glad it’s around.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:    Tell me the joys and sorrows of working with the human voice.

AP:    I’ve been very lucky.  When it is very good, then it’s a great pleasure to work with the human voice, and when it isn’t, it is purgatory.  If you get a singer who can’t count, or sings out of tune, or who’s pretentious about both things, then you really just want to leave town.  But usually the standard of singing is pretty high right now, at least in the opera houses where I tend to go, or with recitalists.  I haven’t hit any really, really poor people.

BD:    You’re very lucky.

AP:    I know.  If I worked in opera all the time I would hit them, but I couldn’t work in an opera house all the time.  I love opera because I’m kind of a theater animal anyway.  I like the feeling of the theater, and when you add wonderful music and wonderful singers to it, it’s great.  But I wouldn’t want to spend 52 weeks a year with operas.  I just wouldn’t.

previnBD:    You need balance and contrast in your life?

AP:    Yes.  I’ll tell you a story on myself, which is really horrible.  I was in London being interviewed on the radio by the man that used to run Covent Garden, John Tully.  He said, “Why don’t you do nearly as much opera as you do symphony works?” and I said, “Oh, I’d much rather work with musicians.”  [Both laugh]  What I meant was, obviously, that I wanted to work with instrumental players instead of singers, but the next morning I came to a rehearsal at Covent Garden, and as I walked in the doorman said, “Go around the back way, Maestro.  They’re going to kill you.”  [Laughs]  So I had to explain that.

BD:    [With a gentle nudge]  It seems there are so many people who would rather listen to music than singing.  This is something of an audience perception.

AP:    Really?  I have always thought that people love to hear singing.

BD:    I mean there are many in the general audience that would never go to the opera because they don’t want to hear singing.

AP:    That I didn’t know.  That I don’t understand.  But I could understand not going to an opera because some of it is so silly.

BD:    [Gently protesting]  Oh, but silly’s fun!

AP:    Silly’s fun, yes, but when you’re sitting in a not quite perfect performance of one of those librettos where you can’t believe it, you say, “Come on, behave yourself up there.  Who believes you in this?”   But that’s the only reason not to like opera, I think.

BD:    These days the stage directors, the regisseurs, are trying to update operas.

AP:    No, I do not like that.  That whole
regi-opera you can have.  I don’t like that.  I’ve seen so much of it in the last few years.  I remember one where Don Giovanni made his entrance on a skateboard.  I don’t think it’s funny, I don’t think it’s tragic, and it sure as hell doesn’t have anything to do with Mozart.  So I always think that if a director has that much imagination, great.  Then let him do a new opera, but leave works like Fidelio alone.

BD:    [Playing Devil
’s advocate]  But once in a while these updatings almost work.

AP:    Oh, sure!  But when they do it
’s just to prove that they’re better than the play was, that bothers me a lot.  I had it with Streetcar Named Desire.  There was one production where the young director, whom I didn’t pick, was a perfectly nice fellow and he knew what he was doing, but his idea was to have twelve Stanley Kowalskis all circling around Blanche DuBois.  I finally couldn’t stand it and I said, “What the hell is that?  What are those people?”  He said, “Oh, those are all the men in her past.  She’s equated them all with Stanley.”  I said, “Who’s going to know this?  You can’t do that.  Tennessee Williams didn’t think it was necessary.”

BD:    So you shouldn’t be an armchair shrink as a stage director?

AP:    No, I don’t think so.  If you have a brilliant idea, then it’s worth doing, but not just to be different.  [Sighs]  But then I’m getting old, and I’m getting old fashioned.

BD:    Oh, but you’re staying up with things!  You’re still writing interesting music.

AP:    Well, I hope to do so.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:    Is the music that you write for everyone?

AP:    I don’t think so.  I think it’s probably for more people than Milton Babbitt’s [laughs], but then I couldn’t be Milton Babbitt even if I wanted to because I don’t think that way.  I think in a kind of conservatism that allows for a great deal of dissonant freedom, but then so did Benjamin Britten and so did Sam Barber, and all the people that I adore.

previnBD:    These are people who write a melody.

AP:    Yes, and I could get into what actually is a melody.  How would you define a melody?

BD:    A sing-able melody.  That’s it.

AP:    All right, a sing-able melody, yes.  That’s true.  I try, but not because I think it’s correct to do so, but because I can’t think any other way.

BD:    That’s the way your mind works.

AP:    Yes, that’s the way my mind works.  I had a very good friend, Mel Powell, who was a very radical composer.  He was such a good guy, and he was a really close friend.  We used to say terrible things to each other about each other’s music.  One time I said, “Mel, when you write a thing like this, do you get this theme as an idea, or do you work it out mathematically, or what?”  He said, “Both.”  I said, “Oh, no.  Both won’t do.  You’ve got to give me one or the other.”  I was baffled by his music and he was baffled by mine, really.  In a sweet way he said, “I can’t think of anything that is vertical.  All my music has to be horizontal.”  I said, “Well, okay.  I wouldn’t want to write the guitar parts.” 

BD:    [Laughs]  So he only wrote lines, rather than harmony?

AP:    That’s right.

BD:    But he was one of those artists who had two sides to him.  He had the jazz side and he had the concrète side.

AP:    He was a wonderful jazz pianist.  But that was long behind him, as it is with me.  Mel was the Dean at CalArts, and he wanted me to come out and spend a day with the students, to give them certain lectures and have questions and answers, and I was happy to do it because I like doing that. 

BD:    What kinds of advice did you give to the younger composers?

AP:    It was only based on practical experiences.  Mel stayed in the classroom, and I spent about four hours talking to them.  The kids were great.  They asked me wonderful questions.  I learned more than they did, and after about four hours Mel said, “Kids, I think you’ve just about exhausted Mr. Previn and also me, and the only thing left for the two of us to do now is to sit down and play Honeysuckle Rose.  [Both laugh]  I thought that was so sweet of him because that’s an area of his work they didn’t even know about, and he was so good at it.

BD:    Are you pleased with where you are at this point in your career?

AP:    Yes.  I wish I had more time to do it all... more time each day and more time in a lifetime.  I get very tired if I work too hard now.  I don’t have that bottomless energy that I used to.  I still am pretty good.  I can still run most of the young guys into the ground, especially on a tour, but I just wish everything I did I could do better.  It
’s that simple.

BD:    Thank you so much for all the music you’ve given us, and for all the music to come.

AP:    Oh, good.  I’m glad you said that.  Thank you.





To read my Interview with Kiri Te Kanawa, click HERE.

To read my Interview with Brigitte Fassbaender, click HERE.

To read my Interview with Tom Krause, click HERE.

© 2005 Bruce Duffie

This conversation was recorded in his dressing room backstage at Orchestra Hall in Chicago on March 5, 2005.  Portions were broadcast on WNUR the following month, and again in 2014, and on Contemporary Classical Internet Radio in 2005 and 2010.  This transcription was made in 2016, and posted on this website at that time.

To see a full list (with links) of interviews which have been transcribed and posted on this website, click here.

Award - winning broadcaster Bruce Duffie was with WNIB, Classical 97 in Chicago from 1975 until its final moment as a classical station in February of 2001.  His interviews have also appeared in various magazines and journals since 1980, and he now continues his broadcast series on WNUR-FM, as well as on Contemporary Classical Internet Radio.

You are invited to visit his website for more information about his work, including selected transcripts of other interviews, plus a full list of his guests.  He would also like to call your attention to the photos and information about his grandfather, who was a pioneer in the automotive field more than a century ago.  You may also send him E-Mail with comments, questions and suggestions.