Conductor / Composer / Pianist
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
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 . . . . .
You’ve just come from rehearsal and you want to go and
play more music???
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?
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.
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?
BD: So you’re
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
AP: Oh yes,
and so do they.
programming for the tour, is it similar to the concerts at home or do
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?
bringing my own wife, too! My Violin
Concerto was commissioned for her
by the Boston Symphony, and she did the premiere. Then she said,
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.
composed throughout your career, and yet in the
last ten years it seems that there’s been a lot more coming from
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.
BD: But eventually
the ideas come?
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
do you wait and find a piece for it?
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
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
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
no, this is not a bad piece; it’s a good piece, but I’m using it in the
BD: So then
you’ll reframe it?
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,
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
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?
AP: 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...
you’re composing, are you meticulously
working out everything, or are you hearing it in your head and
AP: No, I’m
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.
you’re working it out and you’re working it
out. How do you know when you’ve got it right?
Never! [Both laugh]
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 hearing a recording?
AP: No, these
are pieces that are not recorded. What’s recorded has a whole
different kind of life.
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?
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
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
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?
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?
AP: 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.
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?
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.”
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?
yes! Technically, yes.
BD: Is the
musicianship continuing to progress?
[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?
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
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
I like Heifetz. And where are they now? There aren’t that
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
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.
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
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
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.
BD: You need
balance and contrast in your life?
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
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
Really? I have always thought that people
love to hear singing.
BD: I mean
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.
protesting] Oh, but silly’s fun!
fun, yes, but when you’re sitting in a not quite perfect performance of
those librettos where you can’t believe it, you say, “Come on, behave
there. Who believes you in this?” But that’s the only
reason not to like opera, I think.
days the stage directors, the regisseurs,
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
Devil’s advocate] But once in a while
these updatings almost
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,
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
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
BD: 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?
sing-able melody. That’s it.
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.
the way your mind works.
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
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.”
[Laughs] So he only wrote lines, rather than
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
kinds of advice did you give to the younger
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?
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
BD: Thank you
so much for all the music
you’ve given us, and for all the music to come.
good. I’m glad you said that.
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
at that time.
To see a full list (with links) of interviews which have been
transcribed and posted on this website, click here.
Bruce Duffie was with WNIB, Classical 97 in Chicago from 1975
its final moment as a classical station in February of 2001. His
interviews have also appeared in various magazines and journals since
and he now continues his broadcast series on WNUR-FM, as well
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
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.