André Previn, former conductor of the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra, returns to town March 10 for a chamber music concert in Carnegie Lecture Hall with five members of the PSO. Carnegie Museums Performing Arts Manager Victoria Cole caught up with the busy maestro recently and chatted with him about the event.
Victoria Cole: I think the Pittsburgh audience knows you best as a conductor, but chamber music has always been important to you as a musician. Why?
André Previn: The short answer is that Iíve always loved to play the piano. But really, chamber music is the soul of music. Itís the best kind of music there is. I do a lot of it, I always have. I have my own series in Vienna at the Brahms Saal, which seats about 500. When I was in Pittsburgh, I did a lot of chamber music with my friends in the symphony. Iíve started chamber music series almost every place Iíve been. So Iíve been wanting to do something like this Pittsburgh concert in March for some time.
Whatís the biggest difference for you as a musician between conducting and playing with a small ensemble?
The interesting thing is that whenever Iím talking to conducting students, I always tell them that playing in an orchestra should feel like playing chamber music with a lot of people. Thatís what weíre aiming for, as conductors. And I tell my students, for Peteís sake, play chamber music. It gives you a whole new set of ears, it makes you listen. Thatís the joy of it.
We seem to be in a cultural period which loves big, grand productions. Maybe that accounts for the continued popularity of opera and big-production movies and musical theater. Do you ever worry that weíll lose the taste for the intimacy of chamber music?
No, not a bit. Chamber music is the making of music by four or five equals. This will survive. Chamber music will be around long after the dinosaur movies have bit the dust.
In March, weíre going to hear the Pittsburgh premiere of your own composition, Trio for Oboe, Bassoon and Piano. When you compose, do you write with specific performers in mind?
Sometimes I do get inspired by wonderful performers, and we are incredibly lucky to have in the PSO some great virtuosi to write for. Cyndy and Nancy [PSO Principal Oboe Cynthia DeAlmeida and Principal Bassoon Nancy Goeres] are incredible musicians. The piece came about from working with the St. Lukeís Orchestra and some complaining that there wasnít a lot of literature for this kind of group. Itís rather a dry sonority, not a lush string-based sound. I recorded the piece with Cyndy and Nancy, and itís been played quite a lot since then.
You obviously have a pretty hectic schedule. Can you compose on the road or do you have to be in one place to concentrate on the writing?
That actually is a good question. I found out recently when I was working on Streetcar [Previnís opera A Streetcar Named Desire was commissioned by the San Francisco Opera for opening the 1998 season] that I simply had to do only that, or it wouldnít get done. I just finished it last week. But I had to interrupt my writing to go to Japan, and it was incredibly hard to come back after breaking the thread. So I discovered that I had to get a little ruthless with my schedule to finish the project. But I have composed more in the last eight years than I did in the previous 20 years. Iíve had commissions from the NY Phil and the Emerson Quartet and now San Francisco. Iím lucky. I spend about even timeóa third conducting, a third composing, a third playing.
You mentioned your opera and Iíve got to ask you about it before we go. How did it come about and why Streetcar as a libretto?
I never had the temerity to write an opera. Someone tried to interest me once in an opera with a story about a bunch of Romans. But I simply canít write an opera about people in togas. As soon as people come out in those sandals, forget it. It just isnít in me. So when San Francisco called me up and offered me an opera based on A Streetcar Named Desire, I didnít think twice, I just said yes. Itís one of the great things in American theater, the play I mean. And my opera is for four huge leads, no chorus, no big production. And with Renée Fleming, who will play Blanche, itís going to be really fun.
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