One particularly inviting afternoon in May 1984, this writer attended a concert at the Kennedy Center by the Pittsburgh Symphony conducted by Andre Previn and enjoyed it, but sensed that something was wrong.
The normally charismatic Previn seemed to have lost his touch. The players of this fine orchestra seemed set on getting the program over as efficiently, and humorlessly, as possible. What was the problem? Were we suddenly learning the conductor and orchestra had been oversold?
Reading the last of the four parts of this excellent book about Previn, one finds that there was indeed something wrong that May afternoon: a growing conflict between Previn and the orchestra's leadership.
Earlier in the season, the orchestra's managing director, Marshall Turkin, and Previn had been at loggerheads over how to run the show. Previn had pleaded with the executive committee of the board for a chamber music series and benefits for the players, saying, "You can't treat them like factory workers. They're very special people." There was a heated exchange, but management was unconvinced.
This occurred during a period when it was widely known that Previn was being courted by the orchestras of Los Angeles and San Francisco.
Turkin, according to this account, won the upper hand. And by early May, before the Kennedy Center concert, Previn had asked to be released from the remaining two years of his contract. He has since become music director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic.
All of this sturm und drang comes from a chapter added by author Helen Drees Ruttercutter to an amiable, sensitive profile of Previn that she did for The New Yorker, where she is a writer.
It should be emphasized that this is not a biography, but a profile. Some of the more famed events of the Previn life, like his marriage to Mia Farrow, are barely mentioned -- nor are his other marriages, except for the last one, to Heather Hales Previn, who is quoted extensively.
Andre Previn himself is nothing if not quotable.
On flying here on the Concorde from England, where he has a country home in Surrey: "It not only saves time, but cuts down on cowardice."
On theatrical gestures from the podium: "Monteux gave me some good advice. He saw me do Brahms' 'Tragic' Overture. Afterward, he said, 'Listen, before you knock out the ladies in the balcony, make sure the horns come in.' "
On the approach to classical music in the glory days of MGM: "Irving Thalberg -- the wunderkind of the thirties -- was very smart about movies but didn't know anything about music. He ran a picture once and there was something in the score that he disliked. He said to one of his sycophants, 'What is that in the music that I dislike so much?' And the man, who didn't know anything either, said, 'Oh, Mr. Thalberg, that's a minor chord.' He could have said a major chord. He could have said a French horn. He could have said anything. He just wanted to get off the hook. Thalberg then dictated an interoffice memo, which was framed and hung in the M-G-M music library, and it was still there when I arrived. It said, 'From the above date forward, there will be no minor chords in M-G-M music scores.' It's endearingly horrifying, because he meant it. It was a sign I tried to steal, but I couldn't get it unscrewed from the wall."
Previn is only 54. And considering the regularity with which remarkable stories seem to come his way, Ruttencutter should be prepared to update this charming volume with regularity.