Tag: composer-publisher relations

An Unassuming Musical Polymath with Great Curiosity and Knowledge—Remembering André Previn (1929-2019)

A photo of two Caucasian men, one in a red shirt and one in a blue shirt, sitting in a house together

André Previn died before completing his final commission and, since his death, I’ve been absorbed in realizing it for the premiere at Tanglewood on August 3 of this year. The work is a monodrama about Homer’s Penelope, with text written by Tom Stoppard and a surprise actor in a speaking role. Commissioned by The Boston Symphony Orchestra, The Ravinia Festival, Aspen Music Festival and School, and The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, Penelope is to be performed by The Emerson Quartet with pianist Simone Dinnerstein and soprano Renée Fleming. Now that it’s in shape to get to rehearsals, I have time to think and write about André.

André Previn kept his four Oscars on the floor behind chairs at the dining table.

I think of the years I spent with André with great joy. His deep musicianship accrued many accolades, yet he was unassuming, if pleased, about the honors and awards. He kept his four Oscars on the floor behind chairs at the dining table. At Christmastime he’d tie red ribbon bows around their necks; a half-dozen of his Grammys were piled on a high shelf gathering dust and tarnish while his OBE and Presidential Medal of Freedom were sometimes out and other times in a drawer somewhere. If one asked, he would show them with pleasure, but it was conversation about music, and playing it, that most animated him.

He was a musical polymath with great curiosity and knowledge of all manner of music. Some, knowing only the externalities of his musical life, may be surprised at the breadth of his curiosity. Once when I went to see him he opened with, “Do you know the music of Wallingford Riegger?” “Yes,” I said. “Well, it’s devilishly difficult. I’ve been studying it, and I’d never write anything like it but it’s fascinating!” I never heard him disparage any other composers or styles of music; the worst he would say was, “I admit that the very experimental music, I just don’t get it. And I get nervous when it gets played because I don’t know what the point is.”[1] Interestingly, he was much more free in his critique of movie music, especially from the movies he’d watch on TCM during bouts of insomnia. He once recounted to me how he had turned on the channel and watched a movie, becoming enchanted by the music. He wanted to get to the closing credits so he could see who wrote it, and it was he! He got a good laugh out of that.

Commission or no, André was always writing. He was always looking for things to write for Renée Fleming, and he wrote all manner of works for Anne-Sophie Mutter because he loved the way she played. Let him speak to this:

…[I]t was Carnegie Hall. They were doing commissions for an anniversary. And they said they wanted me to get together with Toni Morrison. And I said, ”Wonderful!” And I wrote some songs with Toni Morrison’s words. And I played them for Anne-Sophie and she said, ”Will you write me something?” I said, ”Sure. I’d love it.” And I wrote her a piece called Tango Song and Dance, which has been done a lot, and I never looked back. I’m always writing something for her; always. And she always plays them. It’s very dear of her.[1]

And … with Renée, my recommendation to all composers is, if they write something for voice, write it for Renée.[1]

André hated writing program notes; he always preferred letting the music speak for itself. However, there were times when he felt very pressured to do so by commissioners. One time, he came into the office complaining about needing to write a program note and I fed him a line to start one. He looked askance at me and we continued speaking about his next commission. About five minutes into that, he stopped, looked at me, and gave a second line. From there we were off and running, composing a program note which was fabricated out of whole cloth and which, not surprisingly, figured in the newspaper critic’s [positive] review. That always makes me think of Martha Graham renaming the piece Aaron Copland wrote for her; the myth of the music which her name engendered carries to this day. Years later André would tell the story of that note as if it were the honest truth; who knows, maybe he sublimated it.

On one of his orchestral works the opening tempo is “Tempo I”. In another there’s no opening tempo at all.

He was also extremely sparing with tempi and dynamic markings. I often get phone calls or emails at work telling me there’s been some kind of printing error because these things are missing. On one of his orchestral works the opening tempo is “Tempo I”. In another there’s no opening tempo at all. I had a phone call from a conductor about that latter one while André was in Japan. He wanted to know what the opening tempo was. I told him to hold on a minute while I got the score. I started reading and turned to page 2 where there was a run in the clarinets which made me think, “too fast.” I started again, then told the conductor, “I’d say about q = 108.” When André returned from Japan I called him and asked him what speed he’d opened the piece at when he conducted the premiere. He thought a moment and said, “I think around q = 112.”

I always thought André just trusted that people who were schooled in the same art and discipline as he would be able to infer from his scores what he wanted. I like that idea. But when I asked him specifically about this habit he said:

Well, you see, I learned as a conductor, if you’ve got a good player playing, leave ‘em alone. First. And then if he does something that you don’t like, then you can suggest, not tell him, maybe a different way. But there are so many conductors I know, really good conductors, like [deleted] is a marvelous conductor, but he used to, you know, the first chord, ‘No, no, no!’ Please, let them play, because they’ll fix something long before the conductor will anyway.[1]

André Previn just wrote for the love of writing. He never revised…

He also just wrote for the love of writing. He never revised, and if he didn’t like a piece he’d written he wouldn’t have to hear it again so he’d just go on to the next one. He once told me, “I write music I like; I don’t expect it to last.” But he did admit to liking some of his music: He liked Owls, “And I liked two of the three trios that I wrote. I wrote a trio for oboe, bassoon, and piano, and I like that. That was a long time ago. It was very Poulenc-like. But I enjoyed that very much. I don’t know, I’m so primitive.”[1] André was generally loath to name works of his that he liked, and was generally dismissive of many things he’d done–or, a la Schubert, he’d ask, “I wrote that?” Still, I know from other conversations that besides the Poulenc-like trio, he was quite fond of his Violin Concerto [the Anne-Sophie] and the Nonet (which he also wrote for ASM), as well as Honey and Rue and Every Good Boy Deserves Favour. André also very much liked his operas A Streetcar Named Desire and Brief Encounter. I would personally add to my favorites list the Harp Concerto (which he enjoyed at the time), and I think both the Concerto for Orchestra and Penelope, which are yet to be premiered, will be keepers as well.

The other André, of the popular world… I once told him I had found his album, A Touch of Elegance, at a Goodwill store near his apartment. He asked me how much I paid for it. I told him, “a dollar” and he immediately said, “Oh, you paid too much.” And he meant it. There was much schmaltz in those days. Then there was his long relationship with Oscar Peterson, whom he admired greatly:

Oscar Peterson was some kind of really towering pianist. My God.…he liked me and we were friends. And the last time he played at a club in New York was at the Blue Note. And I went to see him. And they gave me a table which was as far away from the piano as I am from you [about three feet]. And Oscar played, played his usual amazing things, and he looked up and he saw me. And he stopped and he pointed me and he said, “I thought I got rid of you.” Nice. Nice compliment.[1]

If you’ve never seen the BBC4 hour-long show with André interviewing, and then jamming with, Peterson you should look it up on YouTube; the complete show is here:

I’m cueing and extracting parts from Penelope now. Soon we’ll start rehearsals for the premiere. It will be a pleasure to “speak” with André once again.


Direct quotes from Previn in Conversation, with David Fetherolf, Editor/Production Manager, G. Schirmer/AMP, original edit.

Other quotes from memory.

Blogging MIDEM 2013: Part 4 – Global Mobile

I’m currently sitting at the Nice Côte d’Azur airport waiting for a flight back to Paris where I will change planes to head back to New York City for the evening before flying out early tomorrow morning to Winnipeg. (Yeah, it’s a little nuts, I know.) Anyway, since I just discovered that the Nice airport offers free wifi to passengers in the departure terminal (why don’t all airports?), I thought it would be a good time to attempt to conclude my reports from MIDEM 2013.

As I mentioned yesterday (link to post), the final day of MIDEM is usually something of a ghost town. Many attendees don’t even bother showing up even though there are still panel sessions and the exhibition room is technically open throughout the day. The folks who run MIDEM seem to encourage this drop-off. The fourth and last day of MIDEM is the only day that they don’t publish a newspaper for attendees. (I haven’t had a chance to read any of this year’s newspapers yet, but they’re in my carry-on luggage so maybe I can catch up with them during the flight if Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections doesn’t hold my attention—I took it with me thinking I’d read it during various travels here but thus far haven’t made it past the first page.)


Deflated MIDEM Festival balloon

When I arrived at the Palais early Tuesday morning the MIDEM Festival balloons were already deflated as a small number of people proceeded across the red carpet to experience the final hours of this extravaganza. What a difference from 24 hours ago when everything was so manic. There wasn’t even a line to check my coat today. I quickly wandered the exhibition area to see what was going on. Many folks were already in the process of packing up, although some were still attentively manning their booths hoping for one last deal.



I did manage to finally run into a representative for the Ford Sync display which I had looked at somewhat befuddledly earlier in the week (what’s with all the automobile-related displays this year?) so I struck up a conversation with him.

But then it was time to head to a panel about innovations in mobile music—a rather appropriate follow-up, actually. Mobilium Advisory Group CEO Ralph Simon, who moderated the panel, claimed that this was “the most important session of the entire MIDEM.” I wouldn’t go that far, though to be honest, I only had time to stay for about a third of the allotted session time. While I was there it was heartening to hear Francis Keeling from Universal Music Group attest that, as a result of reaching developing markets across the world through mobile platforms, “the music industry is now properly going into growth.” According to South Korean entrepreneur Abraham Jo, who is currently the CEO of MelOn in Indonesia, 32 million people in South Korea use smartphones, which is 64% of the population. That’s become a huge market for music and it has transformed South Korea from a “notorious pirate country to a role model” for innovation in mobile music platforms. The real innovation has been switching the focus from downloading services to viable streaming services since, as Keeling noted, “the problem with downloads is that mobile devices can’t support them.” (But he’s not riding the subway like me and Jerald Miller from Nu Jazz Entertainment.) Pandora’s Heidi Browning talked about how Pandora has become one of the most successful streaming platforms through “disrupting traditional radio by launching a personalized radio” service based on a music genome which taxonomizes a total of 450 musical attributes and results in listeners not being “stuck in one genre” but, rather, “connected by the essence of music.”

Mobile Platform Panel

Ralph Simon, Abraham Jo, Heidi Browning, and Francis Keeling (pictured left to right) talk about mobile platforms for music.

But at that point I had to dash downstairs where I arrived just in time for the opening of a panel discussion on the latest developments of the Global Repertoire Database (GDR) which has been an ongoing theme at MIDEM in recent years. The GRD aims to be a one-stop repository for rights information for every piece of music on the planet. It’s a tall order and they have not gotten very far past the preliminary stages, although detailed blueprints will be unveiled in a couple of weeks and a soft launch is planned for 2014. “We want to make sure we get it right,” said Jackie Alway, director of international legal and business affairs for Universal Music Publishing. According to her, the GRD will be designed using enhanced ICE technology and advanced Siznet technology. The project is being overseen by a board of directors which contains equal representation from creators, other rights holders (publishers, labels, etc.), and collecting societies. But according to Michael Battison, vice president of international business development at ASCAP, the GRD is not set up to resolve copyright disputes; “dispute resolution will remain the same as it is now.” I’ve only scratched the surface in describing the conversation during this panel, but upon my return to New York City, I hope to publish links to more information about this project which should be of concern to anyone who creates, performs or listens to music—in a word, everyone.

GRD panel

The GRD panel

Classical Publisher Talk

James Jolly and Chris Butler

The very last session I attended was a talk between Gramophone’s James Jolly and Chris Butler, the COO and head of publishing for Music Sales (the owners of G. Schirmer/Associated Music Publishers). After so many talks about music and monetization over the course of the past four days, it was refreshing to hear them talk about different kinds of success—artistic as well as commercial—and long-term returns on investments, a time frame that is pretty much inconceivable in the pop music realm. Although a downside to that, as Jolly pointed out, is that less than 4% of the classical music currently being performed and recorded is by living composers which is miniscule considering the amount of new music being written right now. Butler spoke about a publisher’s personal and lifelong relationship with a roster composer, “You’re a composer from the beginning until the end.” (There are some 80 living composers on the Music Sales roster.) When I asked about self-publishing, however, Butler was somewhat skeptical. Although “there is now no barrier to entry for publishing,” he claimed, “The best classical composers tend to find their way to publishers” since it is so difficult to promote, distribute, and maintain the requisite performance materials that will get the music in as many places as it needs to be in order to really be successful. I’m sure a lot of folks here might have some alternate views about this and people should feel free to offer their comments. Although I will say that Butler was an extremely enthusiastic advocate for contemporary music and it was very refreshing to hear his views about promotion. He asserted that “sometimes we obsess with protection and income but the road to monetization starts with exposure.”

Following the conclusion of their talk, I made one last circuit around the exhibitions and finally had a chance to talk with the attendees from Malaysia and Barbados, another country visiting MIDEM for the first time. Both countries loaded me up with music to listen to, so I’ll inevitably have more to say about them in the future. There were one or two more sessions about various legal matters still on the agenda, but at that point, I was saturated with information and decided to call it a day. As I walked out of the Palais in the afternoon, I caught a snippet of one last musical performance—a singer/songwriter set herself up right outside the exit and was singing a song about an ex-boyfirend coming back one last time to take his CDs. It was somehow a fitting ending to this zany week.

Final MIDEM Gig

The Final MIDEM Gig