Conversations with André Previn

André Previn — the composer, conductor, pianist, recording artist and much more — was in town for the premiere of his new Double Concerto, written for violinist Jaime Laredo and cellist Sharon Robinson. On Friday noon, as I was finishing up my opera review from Thursday’s performance of “Hansel and Gretel” at home and preparing to dash downtown to file it — I noticed a text from Music Hall on my phone. Mr. Previn has a few minutes for an interview. Did I want it?

Andre Previn spoke to a CCM audience on Saturday
Andre Previn spoke to a CCM audience on Saturday

Well, yes. With no time to prepare, I flew down I-75 to Music Hall, where Previn was waiting patiently in the Green Room. He said some lovely things about Cincinnati, the CSO and Music Hall (“Big!”) for my iPhone camera, which you can see here. (“Oh, is that the way you take videos these days? That’s amazing,” he said. )

Here are some of his other thoughts during our conversation:

Tell us about your inspiration for the Double Concerto: No, I can’t. First of all, I can’t talk about my own music. I always think that music is talked to death, you know? People talk and talk and talk. Just play it. Either people will like it or they don’t, or accept it or they won’t. But to explain it to them — I always think it’s a waste of time.

About working with Jaime and Sharon: I’ve known of them for many years. I wrote my Second Piano Trio for them, and then, it was all very matter-of-fact. They came to me and said we’d love to have you write a double concerto for us. I said, well I feel like writing one. That’s good! So off we went… with a lot of clean paper and some pencils.

I love the way you worked some jazz into the last movement of the Trio: Well, that wasn’t on purpose, but if you heard it, that’s fine. I like jazz, and I like listening to it and playing it, but it never influenced my writing.

About his opera, “A Streetcar Named Desire”: I loved it and it was a big success, which surprised me. (On Saturday, he added, When the opera opened, I sat there, just floored that I’d written an opera. I was “self-impressed.” )  The second opera, “Brief Encounter,” I also liked, but it wasn’t a big success.

With so many awards that have been heaped on you over the years, is there one that is especially meaningful to you? No, I like it when my good friends, my colleagues, like something. That’s a nice award.

An afternoon with Previn at CCM

On Saturday, Previn was in Patricia Corbett Theater at CCM, where several students and alumni performed some of his works and he spoke and answered questions from the audience. WGUC’s Suzanne Bona hosted.

To open, soprano Erin Keesey and pianist Matthew Umphreys performed two of his Three Dickinson Songs, which he wrote in 1999 for Renée Fleming. These are evocative, emotional songs, and an example of how beautifully he writes for the voice. I was reminded of his song cycle, “Honey and Rue,” which he wrote for CCM graduate Kathleen Battle.

Previn was attentive and seemed pleased, particularly when pianist Corbin Beisner played two movements of his piano piece “The Invisible Drummer.” The jazz riffs in these complex numbers were irresistible. “Don’t ever ask me to play that,” he laughed, adding that he’d written the set 30 to 40 years ago for his good friend Vladimir Ashkenazy.

Previn chatting with Suzanne Bona of WGUC
Previn chatting with Suzanne Bona of WGUC

The program ended with Four Songs to words by Toni Morrison, sung by soprano Katherine Jolly, with Umphreys on piano and Tom Guth on cello. Previn explained later that the cello part was added for Yo-Yo Ma, who happened to be in town just as Previn and Renée Fleming were going into the recording studio…

He said some revealing things in his interview with Suzanne Bona. The most revealing was this: “It all begins and ends with Mozart for me.” He also reminisced about playing Bach Chorales daily when he was married to the violinist Anne-Sophie Mutter, for whom he wrote his Violin Concerto: “We’d get up and sing and play, and play four-handed those four-voice chorales. They are stunningly beautiful… Start the day with music that is infinitely better than anything you could ever write.”

And here’s an interesting tidbit: Previn is now at work on his next opera for Renée Fleming, you may have heard of a book by Henry James called “Turn of the Screw,” he said. He and celebrated playwright Tom Stoppard are working together on it, and there is talk of a premiere at Lyric Opera of Chicago, Previn said. “But it’s going to take a while.”

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