Once, Andre Previn made headlines. He even made Madame Tussauds. Now he just makes music. What a relief. By Edward Seckerson

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The Independent Culture
A few years back, two of Andre Previn's old Hollywood chums - a famous director and an equally famous composer - came to pay their respects at a London performance of Beethoven's Ninth. During the prolonged ovation at the close, the composer turned to the director and remarked: "Such a reception. I'm pleased for Andre, really I am. It's just too bad he fucked up his career."

That's a true story, and it's Hollywood to a T. Why would anyone want to leave? So when Previn took his four Oscars and ran, back in the late 1960s, he was finished - goodbye and thanks for the memories. He has a few. There were the charlatans, of course: ever hear the one about the studio executive at an early screening of Death in Venice? "Who wrote this score? Gustav who? Can we sign him?"

But there were the greats, too - tireless, creative spirits. Previn reels off the names: Alex North, David Raksin, Miklos Rozsa among them. "These guys," he says, "elected for a life that I found less and less able to deal with. I finally wasn't interested in writing music that played while actors talked."

He's talking to someone who still has in his possession two battered extended-play 45rpm discs of his score for Elmer Gantry. "Good heavens. Actually, that's one of the few scores of mine that I still rate. Nice and tough. You see, I used to set myself little challenges to make the work more interesting. That score was for strings and brass only. I guess I'd been listening to Hindemith's Concert Music!" Previn left Hollywood with well-primed musical reflexes and the ability to orchestrate in airport lounges. Very useful.

Right now he's in what you might call Phase 3 of his career. This is the elder-statesman, nothing-to-prove-and-everything-to-savour phase. "Nothing to prove, except to myself," he says. "And that's the hardest part of all." Previn is a patient and gracious interviewee. That dry sense of humour of his always hits the mark. But still there's a degree of wariness, of formality in his manner (his German origins?). He doesn't give you more than you ask, and sometimes you ask for more than he gives. But then, he's done the media circus in a big way, and never particularly enjoyed it.

During his 11 eventful years at the helm of the London Symphony Orchestra (1968-1979) - one of those great musical gambles that paid off big-time - he made headlines, lots of headlines. He made the Morecambe and Wise Show (Eric: "I am playing the right notes, but not necessarily in the right order"), he made Madame Tussauds. He made Mia Farrow. He brought a little bit of Hollywood to classical music. The marketing of Andre Previn was all part of his reincarnation.

But that was then. Now he's Conductor Laureate of the LSO (one of those "name on the stationery" titles), his priorities are all about making music, not news. Success is the freedom to choose. "Guesting" with orchestras the world over means no more wrangles with the Board, no more fundraising, no more ladies who lunch. He gets to indulge his passion for the great Viennese classics after years of being pigeon-holed as the last great Romantic.

In Vienna, they love his Haydn ("Isn't it ironic that Bernstein and I should have revived an interest for Haydn in that city?"). He plays Mozart (probably more than anyone else) and Beethoven - "the Bruno Walter way". Which is his way of countering "the tyranny" of the early instrument school. "Look, it's valid, it's fascinating as research. But that's the way music used to sound. It doesn't sound that way any more... And isn't it interesting that all the people who made their reputations by making sure that everybody played out of tune are now saying 'Oh boy, let me at the Tchaikovsky symphonies'!"

Previn's working methods have changed greatly with the years. "I work in much more detail now. I fuss about balances and interior rhythmic things much more these days. And I absolutely insist upon adequate rehearsal time - particularly for the pieces that orchestras know best. Because there the tendency is not to take them apart, rediscover them - and you must. A Beethoven symphony should be rehearsed like chamber music, only for a lot more people."

In Vienna and Dresden (and under the terms of his exclusive new DG recording contract, these orchestras, along with the LSO, are at the hub of his activities) they have the time to make "chamber music". Points of style are negotiable. When he recorded Die Fledermaus with the Vienna Philharmonic (and he's conducted them every season for the last 18 years), he began the very first rehearsal with a question: "Please, give me an honest answer. Do you want me to conduct this, or do you just want to play it?" They opted for the conducting, and in due course the leader wrily declared "a new tradition".

"It's the one orchestra in the world whose sound is instantly identifiable," says Previn. (It's partly in the unanimity of the string phrasing - most of these players studied with the same teacher and probably use the same fingerings). "I think this universality of style is going to be the death of identity. It's the same with composition. I have no idea any more whether it's an English or French or German or American piece."

Or a genuine Previn? Presumably not. In the last two years he's turned out "a ton of music": songs, sonatas, a trio and, soon, an opera. "It's an unadulterated cheek, I know, but the vocal music I've written seemed to be leading there." So that's San Francisco, 1998, text by Tony Morrison after a play which has to remain nameless for now. If opera wasn't quite so time-consuming, Previn would like to conduct more (for DG he's set to record Korngold's Die Tote Stadt with long-term plans laid for Strauss's Daphne and Intermezzo). "I'm really not the kind of conductor you can call up to do Luisa Miller Wednesday."

Just about the only music-making that is instant for him these days is jazz. His Jazz Trio (old chums Mundell Lowe, Ray Brown, Grady Tate) are at the Barbican on Thursday as part of the City of London Festival. And they'll go out on stage with a bunch of tunes and only the vaguest idea about what they want to do with them. Even the keys change bar to bar. True, the spirit of improvisation informs everything a musician does, but... "People who don't do jazz think it's black magic. But really it's just a matter of getting used to it. It's fun to gamble. The trick is not to fall back on the things you've done before. As Duke Ellington said: 'Jazz is the sound of surprise.' I like that." Which is exactly why Previn, the musician, should outlive Previn, the celebrity, long after they've melted him down at Madame Tussauds.

n Andre Previn Jazz Trio on tour: 22 June Barbican, London (0171 638 8891); 29 June St David's, Cardiff (01222 371236); 30 June Symphony Hall, Birmingham (0121 212 3333); 2 July Colston Hall, Bristol (0117 922 3686)