My Dinners (and Lunches) with André
By Earl Rose • April 6, 2019
April 6, 2019 would have been the 90th birthday of André Previn, the mind-bogglingly talented pianist, composer, arranger and conductor who passed away in late February. Previn made major contributions to the classical, jazz, film music and musical theatre worlds, and won four Oscars and 10 Grammys in the process. In celebration of Previn’s life and work, one of his close friends, the fellow ASCAP composer-pianist Earl Rose, sent us this beautiful remembrance.
In December of 2016 I was invited by Steinway & Sons to conduct an interview with André Previn.
When I was a 12-year-old piano student, I remember stopping by Colony Records on Broadway every week to make sure I had his latest recording. Since that time, I’ve continued to admire his versatility and endless creativity, so I jumped at the opportunity presented to me.
During my high school years, I remember buying his legendary solo piano composer tribute LPs – to Harold Arlen, Vernon Duke, Jerome Kern, his jazz trio versions of Broadway shows (My Fair Lady, West Side Story and others) as well as classical piano recordings of Samuel Barber, Dimitri Shostakovich, Francis Poulenc and others. His cinema scores inspired my interest in film composing. He made me aware of how possible it would be to live and thrive in many musical worlds.
As the date approached for our interview, I became more nervous because I had heard he usually did not enjoy giving interviews, especially if the interviewer was not totally prepared and knowledgeable in what would be discussed. I felt confident but apprehensive.
Then, on that Wednesday afternoon in December when he arrived at the new Steinway Hall for our meeting, I remember just feeling so relaxed after we were introduced. At the outset, I told him I wasn’t thinking of what we were about to conduct as an interview but just a conversation between musicians. He embraced the idea, and we were off and running. For the next hour we bounced around talking about Art Tatum, Erroll Garner, Oscar Peterson, film music, classical music - all the topics we were passionate about. As we parted, we agreed to meet again. A few weeks later, I visited his apartment for the first of many dinners (he loved Italian tartufo for dessert) and lunches we would have, every few weeks for over two years, until his passing on Thursday morning, February 28.
We talked for hours about so many different musicians: pianists - both classical and jazz, bass players, guitarists, trumpet players, singers, arrangers, conductors and plenty of composers. Of the 20th century classical composers, he admired Benjamin Britten (in whose home André composed his piano concerto), Ralph Vaughan Williams, Henri Dutilleux.
He would always rave about how wonderful Martha Argerich is, and when we watched the documentary on her life, Bloody Daughter, I could see how moved he was by it. One of his delights was conducting Prokofiev’s 3rd piano concerto for her and watching a video of it. He loved expressing his admiration and love for the musicians he respected. We would laugh in awe of Oscar Peterson’s technique, swing and beautiful tone. He told me numerous times how wonderful it felt to have heard that Oscar Peterson said of him, “Oh, he can play!”
Then, of course, there were the countless stories of his days in Hollywood. When he was playing piano in a jazz club early in his career on Sunset Strip, Orson Welles came in one night. André’s initial thrill quickly changed to dismay when Welles asked him to play the “hokeyist” songs. André just couldn’t believe it.
He told me he loved working on Billy Wilder’s films, felt he was a genius and that Wilder always had very little to say about his music. When André approached Wilder about this one day on the scoring stage, Wilder responded by saying he’d know if he wasn’t happy if he wasn’t hired on the next picture. He also said that Wilder admired Vincente Minnelli’s films because they always looked so good.
Among the arrangers he admired and were friends with were Nelson Riddle, Billy May, and Johnny Mandel. He loved arrangers who could really make a band swing. When he arranged the music for the film Finian’s Rainbow, composer Burton Lane would say to André that his counter melodies were better than the main melody of the song Burton had written. André disagreed, but he appreciated the compliment.
He delighted in sharing memories of his days at MGM Studios, composing and arranging countless scores. He held in admiration the other composers under contract at the time such as David Raksin (Laura) and Miklós Rózsa, who were housed in neighboring offices in the music department building. He said they all had great fun seeing each other every day, going to lunch together on the studio lot, and working in a frenzy to keep up with the many films MGM was producing.
He told me the story of how during the filming of My Fair Lady for Warner Bros., even though he adored Audrey Hepburn, her singing wasn’t going to work. He clearly did not want to hurt her feelings, so it was decided that they play back her vocals on the soundstage for her with the largest speakers possible. Upon hearing herself, she knew she wasn’t the one to sing the Lerner-Loewe songs, and that was that.
One night I asked André if he ever had memory lapses when he performed. He responded by saying that he was on tour with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra performing the Mendelssohn G minor Piano Concerto and during one performance he got totally lost. Using his keen ear and improvisational skills, he finally got back on track and completed the performance to great success. Soon after this he was offered the orchestra’s conductor position. André felt that the management thought that if he could handle that situation so well, he’s the one they wanted as their next conductor.
There wasn’t a visit where he wasn’t excited about the musicians we were talking about. I asked him one night if he was aware of a Bill Evans recording of André’s song “You’re Gonna Hear from Me” from the film Inside Daisy Clover. To my surprise, he’d never heard it and said how difficult a song it was on which to play jazz. During my next visit, I had him listen to the Evans recording, and you could just feel the joy of discovery André had in hearing it. He admired it so much.
His favorite classical pianists included Martha Argerich, Alicia de Larrocha and Emanuel Ax. His jazz favorites were Tatum, Peterson, Evans, George Shearing, Hampton Hawes, Jimmy Rowles - who he said knew the most songs of any musician he’d ever met - and recently, Bill Charlap. He also loved Count Basie, not only as a bandleader but as a pianist. He told me once that Basie said of his own playing, “Oh, I don’t do much.”
It was apparent from our conversations that André had the highest respect and praise for the musicians in the symphony orchestras he conducted and valued their personal as well as musical friendship. He loved “hanging” with them—just like musicians did in his early jazz days in clubs when he started. He relished the conversation and companionship of musicians. This was especially true with the various jazz musicians he recorded and performed with over the years. He loved bassist Ray Brown, who played with Peterson for many years.
His many collaborations with singers were wonderful memories for him. Ella Fitzgerald was a high point. He told me he greatly admired Carmen McRae, Peggy Lee’s subtlety, June Christy, Julie Andrews, Dame Kiri Te Kanawa and Renée Fleming.
One special night for me was when we tested our song knowledge on each other. He’d play one for me to see if I knew it and vice-versa. One song that he stumped me with was Jerome Kern’s “Remind Me.” Hearing André play that song with his gorgeous touch was an experience I’ll never forget. I stumped him with “Summer Me, Winter Me,” composed by Michel Legrand, which he loved.
Another time, André, after I arrived for dinner, couldn’t wait to tell me of the ultimate putdown he had gotten earlier that day. He had been on Madison Avenue waiting at a corner for the light to turn green when he overheard a woman waiting next to him say to her husband, “That’s André Previn.” Her husband snapped back, “So what??” André just loved that moment.
He recently told me about an arrangement he had completed of Duke Ellington’s “Sophisticated Lady” for Anne-Sophie Mutter. He seemed very happy with it, and I hope we’ll get to hear it someday. We both marveled at the beauty and sophistication of the song, especially its bridge.
Being around André inspired me to be a better musician and raised my desire to be the best I could possibly be.
André told me his favorite song was Gershwin’s “My Man’s Gone Now.” In addition to music lovers touched by his music, he’ll be greatly missed by those who knew him and heard those wonderful stories he would tell.
Composer/pianist Earl Rose is an Emmy-winning composer, songwriter and pianist. He has been nominated for 14 Emmys and has earned three ASCAP Awards for being among the top five most performed composers in television.
His recent scores include the documentary Always at the Carlyle and the PBS American Masters special, Johnny Carson: King of Late Night. In addition to his scores, Earl's songs have crossed over into major pop recording hits. These include the multi-platinum selling recordings “Every Beat of My Heart,” co-written and recorded by Brian McKnight, and “Love Is a Gift,” recorded by Olivia Newton-John and co-written with her and Victoria Shaw.
Classically trained, Earl graduated from the Mannes College of Music in New York, majoring in piano and studying with Edith Oppens and Frances Dillon. He also studied abroad at the Vienna Academie of Music and conducting at the Juilliard School under Emanuel Balaban.