Andre Previn, former L.A. Phil music director and four-time Oscar winner, dies at 89

Deborah Vankin
Los Angeles Times

Andre Previn conquered L.A. with his artistic genius not once, but twice —first as a four-time Academy Award winning composer of Hollywood movie music, then as music director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic.

But Previn was also a man of mixed feelings about L.A., as he expressed in his last major interview with The Times in 2014. The city sparked a love of music and launched his career, but it also caused him so much consternation that he vowed never to set foot here again — a promise he kept for more than two decades.

“I was very successful and made a lot of money,” he said, recalling his L.A. years during an interview in New York. “And then I stepped away and said to myself, ‘Listen, you’ve had it, get out of here.’ “

Previn — conductor, composer and pianist who toggled between classical, pop and jazz and whose genius could not be contained by one city — died Thursday after a short illness at his home in New York, his manager Linda Petrikova said. He was 89.

Previn took over as music director of the L.A. Phil from Carlo Maria Giulini in 1985 and remained in the post until his acrimonious departure in 1989, bristling at what he deemed interference by L.A. Phil manager Ernest Fleischmann.

At the time of his resignation, Previn also was principal conductor of the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra of London. He began his orchestral career as music director of the Houston Symphony in 1967, then went on to become principal conductor of the London Symphony in 1968. From 1976-84 he served as music director of the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra before his appointment in L.A.

“Mr. Previn bridged the gap between classical music and Hollywood in a way no one else did,” Rachel Moore, president and chief executive of the Music Center, where the L.A. Phil is a resident company, said via email. “He will forever be missed both here in Los Angeles and around the world.”

Simon Woods, chief executive of the L.A. Phil, issued a statement calling Previn’s death “a great loss to the L.A. Phil family, and to the entire music world.”

“He was an extraordinary, beloved musician of tremendous versatility who had a long and fascinating career and did so much to bring wide audiences to classical music,” Woods said.

Previn leaves hundreds of recordings, a vast range of music that includes two albums with singer Dinah Shore and an album of Christmas carols with Julie Andrews. Other collaborators included Ella Fitzgerald, Benny Carter, J.J. Johnson and Doris Day. He recorded solo piano performances of music by popular composers such as Vernon Duke and Harold Arlen, and he also recorded jazz renditions of Broadway musicals.

Early life: Previn was born Andreas Ludwig Priwin on April 6, 1929, in Berlin. His family was Jewish and fled Germany in 1938 for Paris, then New York, before finally settling in Los Angeles, where Previn was raised under the family’s new surname. He graduated from Beverly Hills High School in 1946.

His playful and passionate connection with music came early. As a teen, Previn improvised on the piano during silent-film screenings at L.A.’s Rhapsody Theatre.

Previn — whose great-uncle Charles Previn was an Oscar winner and music director of Universal Studios — entered the world of film at age 16. MGM hired him to arrange music for film scores, and he went on to write and arrange movie music, winning Oscars for “My Fair Lady” (1964), “Irma la Douce” (1963), “Gigi” (1958) and “Porgy and Bess” (1959).

Awards: In 1961 Previn made Oscars history by earning three nominations, for the scores of “Bells Are Ringing” and “Elmer Gantry” as well as the song “Faraway Part of Town” from the film “Pepe.”

As a performer in the 1960s, he played classical and jazz concerts. Versatility was a hallmark of his career, and as a composer he wrote orchestral works and chamber music as well as musicals and operas.

Previn earned 10 Grammy Awards during his career. The Recording Academy honored Previn with its lifetime achievement award, the Special Merit Award, in 2010 alongside the likes of Leonard Cohen, Michael Jackson, Loretta Lynn and Bobby Darin. Previn received a Kennedy Center Honor in 1998.

Previn was married five times. His first two wives were musicians: jazz singer Betty Bennett and singer-songwriter Dory Previn. His third wife was actress Mia Farrow, with whom he had three biological children and three adopted children, including Soon-Yi Previn. He was married to his fourth wife, Heather Sneddon, for 20 years. Previn’s fifth wife was concert violinist Anne-Sophie Mutter. They divorced in 2006.

Film composer John Williams cited Previn as one of his oldest friends.

“In everything he did, he brought a keen intelligence, sharp wit and an array of talents that was formidable,” said Williams, who knew Previn since they were teenagers. “He was comfortably at home with Gene Kelly, Miles Davis, Mozart and Mahler — a true renaissance man. And we have been fortunate indeed to have shared the light he brought to this sometimes dreary world for nearly 90 years.”