That’s how André Previn, pianist, composer and conductor who died yesterday, is remembered in Britain, if the obituaries are to be believed.
The man might have composed scores for 50 films, winning five Oscars for his pains, and led or conducted just about every major orchestra in the world, but the first two lines of every British obituary invariably mention his marriage to Mia Farrow and especially his 1971 appearance in a hilarious Morecambe & Wise sketch.
In that sketch Eric Morecambe plays a hapless pianist who makes a mockery of the Grieg Piano Concerto, driving the conductor Previn (to whom Ernie Wise refers as ‘Preview’) to distraction.
When Previn finally points out that Morecambe is playing all the wrong notes, Morecambe grabs the diminutive conductor by the lapels and says: “I play all the right notes, but not necessarily in the right order. Get that, sunshine?”
The sketch was indeed funny, but putting it in the lead paragraph of just about every obituary strikes me as a bit parochial. I would have put it somewhere towards the end, along with the reference to Previn’s five marriages, one of them to Mia Farrow, another to the German violinist Anne-Sophie Mutter.
Farrow was at the time a successful actress, while Mutter an even more successful performer. A good-looking woman, she pioneered playing in dresses that are best described as wardrobe malfunctions waiting to happen.
She had a particular taste in men, largely circumscribed by powerful conductors, otherwise known as stepping stones.
Karajan, Rostropovich, Abbado and of course Previn acted in that capacity, making Anne-Sophie the highest-paid classical soloist in the world, a position to which her rather modest talent alone wouldn’t have entitled her (although one never knows these days).
At the time of her affair with Rostropovich, irreverent Russian musicians indulged their propensity for risqué puns by calling him ‘mutterf***er’. No such pun was uttered about Previn, but then he wasn’t Russian.
It would be easy to mock the reviewers’ lowbrow treatment of the eminent musician (although none of them stooped as low as I just did), but one wonders if perhaps Previn himself encouraged such levity.
This immensely gifted musical polymath was a jack of all trades and, atypically, master of all. In addition to playing and conducting classical music, he was a virtuoso jazz pianist, and his film scores were rivalled by few composers.
Yet perhaps such versatility put some dampeners on his classical musicianship, stopping him just short of the greatness his lavish talent might otherwise have merited. Real music demands real, undivided commitment and punishes its lack.
It’s testimony to Previn’s talent that he wasn’t punished too severely, for his classical performances always were of a high, if not the highest, calibre.
Anyway, it’s thanks to his versatility that I had the pleasure of meeting this charming and witty man once. That happened in Houston, in the early 80s.
A friend of mine, Paul, was a jazz pianist whose trio was a fixture on the Houston club circuit. I went to their gigs often, partly because I liked Paul and partly because I fancied the singer who sometimes sang with his trio.
Previn was in town, with, if memory serves, the Pittsburg Symphony whose artistic director he then was. As was his habit, he liked to relax after a performance by listening to jazz and perhaps doing a turn himself.
When he approached Paul’s trio, they were having a break and chatting with me. “Do you mind if I have a go?” asked the conductor. Paul was never prissy about such things and, though he didn’t have a clue who Previn was, nodded agreement.
Previn sat down, exchanged a couple of words with the drummer and bass player, and went into a dazzling number way above anything ever heard at that club.
When he finished, the bass player said: “Gee, man, that was fantastic! Where d’you play, bro?”
“I got my own band,” said Previn, instantly becoming my friend for life – even though I’ve never spoken to him again.