Composer Genius and Musical Jack-of-All-Trades, André Previn, Dies at 89

André Previn in 1965. He conducted, composed, played jazz piano and scored movies in a musical life that spurned categories.CreditCreditErich Auerbach/Getty Images

André Previn, who blurred the boundaries between jazz, pop and classical music — and between composing, conducting and performing — in an extraordinarily eclectic, award-filled career, died on Thursday at his home in Manhattan. He was 89.

His death was confirmed by his manager, Linda Petrikova.

Mr. Previn wrote or arranged the music for dozens of movies and received four Academy Awards, and was nominated for three Oscars in one year alone — 1961, for the scores for “Elmer Gantry” and “Bells Are Ringing” and the song “Faraway Part of Town” from the comedy “Pepe.”

Audiences knew him as well as a jazz pianist who appeared with Ella Fitzgerald, among others, and as a composer who turned out musicals, orchestral works, chamber music, operas and concertos, including several for his fifth wife, the violinist Anne-Sophie Mutter. He was also the music director or principal conductor of a half-dozen orchestras.

[Listen to the full range of Mr. Previn’s multifaceted career.]

Critics described Mr. Previn as a “wunderkind in a turtleneck” and the “Mickey Mouse maestro” when he was in his 20s and 30s. He was often compared to Leonard Bernstein, a similarly versatile conductor, composer and pianist. Time magazine’s headline when Mr. Previn became the principal conductor of the London Symphony in 1968 was “Almost Like Bernstein.” Newsweek summarized his appointment as music director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic in 1985 as “Bernstein West.”

And like Bernstein, Mr. Previn was no stranger to a life of glamour and media attention, particularly when the actress Mia Farrow left Frank Sinatra, her husband, and married Mr. Previn after an affair that had become grist for the gossip columns.

Mr. Previn conducting the London Symphony Orchestra in London. He was its musical director from 1968 to 1979.CreditJohn Minihan/Getty Images

“See you in the Morning beloved Friend,” Ms. Farrow, who was divorced from Mr. Previn in 1979, tweeted on Thursday. “May you rest in glorious symphonies.”

Mr. Previn himself considered Bernstein an idol. “Bernstein has made it possible not to specialize in one area of music,” he said. “You no longer have to do just Broadway shows, or movies, or conduct — you can do any or all of them.”

And Mr. Previn did. In the 1960s, he appeared in sold-out classical and jazz concerts. Sometimes he combined genres, playing a concerto before intermission and jazz with a trio after. Dizzy Gillespie marveled at his performances. “He has the flow, you know, which a lot of guys don’t have and won’t ever get,” he said.

Mr. Previn made recordings with Benny Carter and Mahalia Jackson and an album of jazz arrangements of songs from “My Fair Lady” with the drummer Shelly Manne and the bass player Leroy Vinnegar. (Mr. Previn was later the conductor and music supervisor for the film version of “My Fair Lady.”) He also made two albums with Dinah Shore and recorded a collection of Christmas carols with Julie Andrews and George Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue” with Andre Kostelanetz.

But the classical world was never comfortable with his work in jazz, and the jazz historian Ted Gioia said Mr. Previn had been “something of a popularizer of jazz rather than a serious practitioner.”

Mr. Previn with Audrey Hepburn in 1963. He was the conductor and music supervisor for the film version of “My Fair Lady,” which starred Ms. Hepburn.CreditAssociated Press

Mr. Previn disdained all the labels. “I never considered myself a jazz musician,” he said in 1986, “but a musician who occasionally played jazz.”

He was born Andreas Ludwig Priwin on April 6, 1929, in Berlin. After his parents realized he had perfect pitch — his father had been an amateur pianist in Berlin — André entered the Berlin Conservatory when he was 6. His father, Jacob, a Polish-born lawyer who was Jewish, moved the family to Paris in 1938 to escape the Nazis.

André studied with Marcel Dupré at the Paris Conservatory for about a year before the family left for Los Angeles. There, he studied with the composer and conductor Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco, the violinist and composer Joseph Achron and the composer Ernst Toch. He soon recorded all the four-hand piano music of Mozart with the composer Lukas Foss, who was not quite seven years older than Mr. Previn.

Mr. Previn became an American citizen in 1943, and in 1950 he was drafted into the Army and served with the Sixth Army Band. He also studied conducting in San Francisco with Pierre Monteux, whom he later followed at the London Symphony.

A relative worked in the music department at Universal Studios, and Mr. Previn wrote music for movies even before he went into the Army. As a senior in high school, he was called in to help with “Holiday in Mexico,” a 1946 MGM musical starring Walter Pidgeon. (A young Fidel Castro was an extra.) The script called for the concert pianist Jose Iturbi to play some jazz, but he was uncomfortable improvising and wanted a score to read. Mr. Previn went to a jam session, listened and wrote out a piano part for Mr. Iturbi to play when the cameras rolled.

Mr. Previn resigned the Los Angeles post in 1989, complaining that the orchestra’s managing director, Ernest Fleischmann, had maneuvered to bring in Esa-Pekka Salonen as his successor. “It has become obvious to me that there is no room for a music director,” Mr. Previn said when he quit. Mr. Salonen was named music director-designate a few months later.

As he approached 70, Mr. Previn turned to opera, writing “A Streetcar Named Desire” to a libretto by Philip Littell based on the Tennessee Williams play. Renée Fleming sang the role of Blanche DuBois in the premiere with the San Francisco Opera in 1998, with Mr. Previn on the podium. Bernard Holland, reviewing the performance for The New York Times, wrote that “it sings very well.”

Mr. Previn conducting the Oslo Philharmonic Orchestra in a performance at Carnegie Hall in 2005.CreditJennifer Taylor for The New York Times

“There are angry clashes of harmony and key,” he added, “many Straussian gestures, sweet-as-honey popular melody and the kinds of corporate noodling and mumbling among the strings native to a Ligeti or a Penderecki.”

A recording with the San Francisco cast won the Grand Prix du Disque. Mr. Previn also won 10 competitive Grammys from 1958 to 2004, divided evenly between classical and nonclassical categories, and a lifetime achievement Grammy in 2010.

The second of his two operas was “Brief Encounter” (2007), with a libretto by John Caird based on Noël Coward’s screenplay for the 1945 David Lean film by that name.

Toward the end of his life, Mr. Previn seemed surprised at the interest in his compositions. ”I wrote a string quartet that I very diffidently mentioned to the Emerson Quartet,” he told the critic David Patrick Stearns in 2017. “And they said, ‘Where is it?’ I’m not used to that.”

In 2017, Ms. Fleming gave several performances of a song cycle he wrote, “Lyrical Yeats.” “These brief songs display Mr. Previn’s keen ear for the telling detail, for musical gestures that set a mood or conjure an image,” Corinna da Fonseca-Wollheim wrote in The Times when Ms. Fleming sang them in a solo recital at Carnegie Hall.

Mr Previn in 1998. Leonard Bernstein, he said, “made it possible not to specialize in one area of music. You no longer have to do just Broadway shows, or movies, or conduct — you can do any or all of them.”CreditOzier Muhammad/The New York Times

In 2018, Ms. Mutter played “The Fifth Season,” for violin and piano, which she and Carnegie Hall had commissioned. She described it as “rather lighthearted.”

This year, Tanglewood had planned events to celebrate Mr. Previn’s 90th birthday, including a performance of the violin concerto “Anne-Sophie” with Ms. Mutter and, with Ms. Fleming and the Emerson quartet, the premiere of “Penelope,” by Mr. Previn and the playwright Tom Stoppard. Tanglewood said the events would now be framed as a celebration of his life and work, although it was not immediately clear if Mr. Previn had finished “Penelope.”

Mr. Previn wrote several books, including “Orchestra” (1979), a depiction of the lives of orchestral musicians, and a memoir of his movie experiences, “No Minor Chords: My Days in Hollywood” (1991).

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SOURCE: The New York Times, by James Barron