When the Hollywood Bowl audience gave conductor André Previn an ovation at the beginning of his current U.S. tour with the London Symphony Orchestra, the cheers were for a hometown celebrity. A bouncy, German-born immigrant, André had been enrolled in the Berlin Conservatory at the age of 6. In the new world—and while still a high school student in Beverly Hills—he was hired by the music department of MGM. By the time he was 30, he had produced the scores for 50-odd films, and collected four Oscars (for scoring and adapting the music for Gigi, Porgy and Bess, Irma La Douce and My Fair Lady). As the final local touch, Previn is the husband of Hollywood-reared actress Mia Farrow.
But the 97 members of the London Symphony also look on Previn with proprietary pride. The LSO is almost unique among major symphonies in having the right to hire and fire its conductor. For the past six years, the musicians’ choice has been Previn.
Under Previn’s baton, the LSO has become the busiest, most prestigious, most traveled and most recorded orchestra in Great Britain. Previn himself, now 45, has moved significantly toward his goal of being accepted as a serious classical conductor.
“How can anybody still blame me for movies that are 15 years old,” Previn asks peevishly. “Some critics will forgive you for being an ax murderer, but never for scoring a film. There ought to be a statute of limitations!”
Previn’s move to London six years ago was the last leg of his escape from Hollywood. “Not only artistically but geographically I had to get the hell out,” he explains. “The music I was writing there was awful, and what I was doing didn’t scare me. I agree with Rex Harrison—you need to be scared to give a good performance.”
Previn took conducting lessons from the late Pierre Monteux, then barnstormed around the U.S. for five years before landing a job as musical director of the Houston Symphony. Then came the offer from London.
At first the LSO was far from sure it had gotten a prize. Previn’s classical experience was admittedly limited. Players groaned audibly when his tempo was too slow, and Previn, with his easygoing American ways, cast aside the conductor’s traditional aloofness. He played model trains with the first violinist, traveled in coaches with the orchestra rather than by limousine and bantered with the musicians.
“What’s that?” he once asked the percussionist.
“A triangle,” was the pained reply.
“Sounds like cuff links, frankly.”
Over the past six years, despite his inexperience, Previn has tremendously expanded the symphony’s repertory. In the process he has invested it with the rich, big sound (“More, more, more!” he will scream at the brass) commonly associated with top U.S. orchestras.
Adding to the LSO’s early dubiousness about Previn was the scandal that engulfed him. In 1968 Mia Farrow won a divorce from Frank Sinatra to marry Previn, but Previn’s second wife, singer-composer Dory, held up her divorce proceedings so long that Mia’s twin boys, Sascha and Matthew, now 4½, were born before she and André made it to the altar.
The Previns have since adopted a Vietnamese orphan, 18-month-old Lark Song, and added their third child, 5-month-old Fletcher. Now André and Mia refer wryly to the days when “we were notorious news.” They have found a retreat in “The Haven,” a converted 16th-century inn deep in the Surrey countryside, 25 miles from London. “We like English village life,” Previn declares. “Nobody ever bothers us.” It is a bucolic existence that has made some inroads on Mia’s career. She does her own patchwork quilting and entertains the twins with marionette shows and music. Their favorite? Peter and the Wolf, says Previn. “They get the music and their mother’s voice, all in one.”
Previn is booked for over 100 concerts a year—two-thirds with the LSO. That is only the beginning of his commitments. Modeling himself on conductor Leonard Bernstein (“a great hero of mine”), Previn is currently the most visible and versatile musical personality in London. He has just composed the music for Good Companions (based on a J.B. Priestley story), he writes for Punch (sample whimsy, “In Praise of Muzak”), chairs his own TV talk show, and to the delight of the BBC attracts 6 million viewers for his TV broadcasts of the classics.
Yet even with maximum TV exposure, Previn finds himself “the man whose wife’s face is infinitely better known.” Not that Mia doesn’t provide warm support—she regularly comes into London for his concerts.
When Previn travels, Mia and the whole family often go along. “We have the most portable children in the world,” he boasts. Home for Previn is now England, “at least in the sense of where I want to raise my children.” Mia, however, finds, “I become more American all the time.” Her favorite place is the Martha’s Vineyard house she and André bought six years ago.
For the peripatetic Previns this dual loyalty should be no problem. André insists: “All I can say is I am happy, my wife is happy, and our kids are really smashing.”
As a composer, Previn doubts his compositions will even be played 50 or 100 years from now. But as a conductor, he says, “I’m concerning myself with music that usually is better than any performance of it. I can run full tilt all my life and never catch up. Every performance is a premiere.”