The Corner

Music

A Dazzler

André Previn as Kennedy Center honoree, 1998. With him is Mia Farrow. (Larry Downing / Reuters)

In my Impromptus today, I begin with talent — with James Harden in particular, whose talent is hard to fathom. This leads me to André Previn — whose son Fletcher, the chief information officer of IBM, was quoted in a Wall Street Journal piece recently.

Who is Previn? André, that is? Well, a musician, born in 1929. (Got the hell out of Berlin just in time.) He is — let us count the ways — a classical composer; a popular composer; a classical pianist; a jazz pianist; a conductor; and — this will stick in some writers’ craws — a damn good writer.

I have been fooling around in the National Review archives. In April 1999, I had a piece called “André, Anyone?” It begins,

Who is the great man of music in the world today? The question, though playful, is not frivolous. Musicians and others like to kick it around, and sometimes they kick hard. A desire to rank — to establish a Number One — is as forgivable in music as it is in tennis (though music, unlike tennis, has no formula). For one thing, the exercise is amusing; but for another, it brings into clarity what we believe and value about this art.

What credentials should our crowned one bear? He ought to bestride his world like a colossus, casting a shadow on its every byway. He ought to have a versatility that invites him into every endeavor. He should be the master — more than just the casual acquaintance — of an instrument. (The piano would be nice.) He ought surely to be a conductor, at home in every type of music, from Byrd to yesterday. And — there is no escaping this — he must compose. He has to be an originator of music, not merely its reproducer, no matter how exalted.

How formally, or at least how differently, I wrote back then! Anyway, André Previn is one of the greatest men of music we have ever seen, or heard.

I have a little potpourri for you. Previn as classical composer? Try the violin concerto he wrote for Anne-Sophie Mutter (one of his wives). As popular composer? Try his song “Like Young.” As classical pianist? Here he is in Mozart’s C-minor concerto (which he conducts at the same time). As jazz pianist? “This Can’t Be Love,” in 1947, when Previn was a teen. As conductor? His famous recording of Rachmaninoff’s Symphony No. 2.

As writer? Prose writer? His memoir of Hollywood, No Minor Chords.

You get the picture. Extraordinary picture.

By the way, Previn wrote an opera on A Streetcar Named Desire. Years ago, I was talking with Lee Hoiby, another American composer. In 1964, Tennessee Williams offered him his choice: any Williams play, for operatic treatment. Hoiby chose Summer and Smoke. He passed over Streetcar, thinking that it did not lend itself well to an opera. For one thing, what would you do with Stanley Kowalski’s bellowing of “Stella!”? How would you set that to music?

About 35 years later, Previn did Streetcar. And he simply let Stanley bellow. No music. Hoiby said, “That’s a perfect solution. It never occurred to me.” (He was still glad he had done Summer and Smoke.)

Anyway, that Impromptus of mine is here. In addition to Harden and Previn, I write of Donald Trump, Elizabeth Warren, George W. Bush, and other characters, including, at the end, Moses.

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