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The prescience of a virtuoso

The great classical musician Andre Previn, who died recently, was ahead of his times in the ways he made classical music accessible to a large audience

The prescience of a virtuoso
Pianist, composer, arranger, conductor.

Many in the world of classical music thought that Andre Previn was the example to follow. He was a virtuoso where classical music was concerned, but then he also composed music for films and was a celebrity presence on television where he connected with audiences on a regular basis.

Since the end of the second world war, the classical forms in the west have been drawing smaller audiences, particularly failing to resonate with the young. The reasons could be many, the most notable being the dominant American influence that did not have a past to fall back upon. With its melting pot of culture it created everything anew. The African strain led to jazz, the emerging groups that formed the bedrock of its culture relied on country music, while the small urban leadership in the developing towns coalesced it with the memories of European classical music heritage. A new recipe was concocted to be savoured favourably across the world in alliance with its growing political clout.

The image of a composer in the west was not that of a showman or an unabashed promoter of his own greatness. Living in an age right till the twentieth century when the main patron was the monarch, albeit with shrinking resources, the composer/ musician did not have to cater to a large and diverse audience. There were no mass audiences accessed through media openings which could be understood and then exploited. The patron’s approval and support was critical and that ensured the survival and popularity of the musician. Some who by temperament were unsuitable to take up these roles created great music but lived miserable lives only to be recognised and acknowledged retrospectively.

Andre Previn a young exile from Nazi Germany, had little but his musical talent to help him on his way. While still a teenager, he was earning money working as an arranger and orchestrator for MGM, getting to meet the great stars of the day on the studio lot and at parties where he would play jazz piano. Before the age of thirty-six he had made four Oscar acceptance speeches for his work on films including Gigi and My Fair Lady. In all, he was nominated eleven times and won the Oscar four of those times.

He was introduced to the non-western world because of his achievements in film music. In the non-western world it was actually a very small initiated audience, a few connoisseurs who kept themselves abreast of the development in music in Europe and the Americas, especially of its classical forms. It also had to do with resources: a trip to the west helped get in synch with the music culture there which was becoming more and more exclusive by the year. As popular music took over it also became cheaper to acquire because of economies of scale and mass production techniques.

When Previn took charge of the London Symphony Orchestra in 1968, he was a very contemporary kind of musical leader. He was a man used to photographers, press conferences and ranks of fans gathered outside stage doors. All of this he could use to promote both himself and the broader cause of classical music. Many thought he was style over substance but he was a major musical figure. His accounts of the Rachmaninov piano concertos and the symphonies of Vaughan Williams were proof enough of that. He was also the conductor for Houston Symphony Orchestra, Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra, Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, Pittsburg Philharmonic Orchestra. The Boxset CBS and RCA released last year gave some clue to his prolific nature as a recording artist – it contains 55 CDs, but is far from exhaustive; he made more than 500 recordings.

Television was a medium that the conductor understood completely. Over the years, he hosted more than two dozen editions of Andre Previn’s Music Night, a shiny-floor and light entertainment show in which the star guests were the players of the London Symphony Orchestra. Previn was the ensemble’s chief conductor. Eschewing formal concert dress for open-necked shirts and casual trousers, they performed popular classics introduced with a light touch by the maestro. In 1977 André Previn was so famous that he had his own chat show on BBC1.

Our classical musicians too have struggled with smaller audiences and have tried to come to terms with media outlets and their resultant compulsions.  After having lost the patronage of the princely states they were left to whither on the vine in Pakistan while in India the state took up their cause in the name of continuing with the grand cultural narrative of an ancient civilization.

Ravi Shanker and Allah Rakha were the first to explore the possibility of garnering larger audiences particularly from other than the subcontinent and their acceptance and media blitz had a positive fallout on local audiences where many just namedropped to appear among the most trendy. Andre Previn also did recordings with Ravi Shanker.

It all changed with the communities living in the west from the Carribean and later the subcontinent who created a new kind of music with rapping. It was a European answer to jazz but in an inverse manner. In jazz the musical sounds remained very African while the lyrics were substituted by English or a slang spoken in the southern United States, while in rap the sounds were English/European but the lyrics were of the languages spoken in the subcontinent or the Carribean, a mixture of sorts a kind of a mock irreverent take on the conditions of these communities as they lived there.

But in the last two decades or so with the everyday use of the internet and television channels the music culture and the definitions about genre and forms have become too eclectic to be given a name. Andre Previn was probably one of those who understood the eclectic future of the times to come, and was able to juggle successfully a number of demanding roles.

Andre Previn died on February 28, 2019

Sarwat Ali

The author is a culture critic based in Lahore

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