Andre Previn’s great concert disasters

John Georgiadis, former leader (concertmaster) of the London Symphony Orchestra, has just brought out a book on the great and not-so-good conductors with whom he worked. John was not a fan of Andrew Preview.

Here’s an extract, exclusive to Slipped Disc:

“What?” This word echoed around the room in utter disbelief, emanating from 80 or 90 incredulous LSO musicians who had just heard from their Chairman, Principal Bass player Stuart Knussen, who would be the new Principal Conductor. Knussen had just delivered a lengthy monologue explaining to us all why a dozen or more other conductors could not, for one reason or another, accept the post. One by one the names had been read out, something along the lines of: Bernstein, Solti, Giulini, Haitink, Davis, etc., etc., with us all either breathing sighs of relief or groans of disappointment, depending on who you personally favoured. But then Knussen said, “However, it is with great pleasure that I can tell you that André Previn has accepted the position”.

After the initial utterances of disbelief followed by a stunned silence I think I was the first to speak up, “I greet this news with utter dismay!” Others joined in with similar sentiments which must have severely shaken the confidence of the board who tried to raise morale by suggesting that it would be up to the members to help and guide Mr. Previn in order to maintain artistic standards. They pointed out all his good points, in particular his commercial value as it seemed that there might be a lot of interest in him from recording companies and television. But with the LSO members largely unimpressed the meeting came to a demoralised end…..

.….The most serious musical calamity that we experienced under his baton was in his early days with us and happened in Columbus, Ohio. It was the initial concert of our first US tour with him and featured that wonderful old warhorse Beethoven’s 5th. During rehearsals, when Previn was completely relaxed, instinct would have helped him give just the right amount of weight to that troublesome starting beat so that there would have been no doubt in the orchestra’s mind where to begin.

As we sat there with mixed anticipation, André, determined to impress on his home soil, stood in front of us with something akin to a John Wayne swagger. Instead of the careful upbeat that is so necessary for this problematic start, we got a gesture resembling the quick-drawing of two six-gun revolvers, as his arms rushed from his hips to mid air with great impact. Astonished at this unexpected violence of movement, the orchestra had to make an instant decision as to whether this was an upbeat or the downbeat. And so it did! Unfortunately, it was a split decision – about 50-50, I’d say – with my side of the orchestra opting for it as an upbeat and deciding to wait a further beat before playing. You can therefore imagine how astonished and shattered we were to hear our colleagues opposite start up immediately! Despite the shock of hearing the piece start without us, we were so committed to our own version of the events that we felt compelled to stand by our judgment, and so made as forceful an entrance as possible, but one bar later than them!

John’s book, Bow to Baton, is available from today on Amazon here.

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  • Previn himself admitted to having trouble starting Beethoven’s 5th. Maybe the orchestra carried him to some extent, but I think the LSO did very well with Previn.

    • One may check out the various live performances of Furtwangler conducting this work.
      He also had trouble starting it.
      But once it got started…. OMG!

  • OMG – so this would have been published even if Previn had not died the other week !

    Interesting stuff. I’d always imagined the LSO had loved AP !

  • This is understandable, as Previn, a relatively inexperienced
    conductor associated with Hollywood at that time, took over from great Istvan Kertesz. Ever since that time the history of this very fine orchestra seems to follow one truly great conductor followed by a more ordinary one. Claudio Abbado was followed by Michael Tilson Thomas, Sir Colin Davis by once highly promising but ultimately disappointing Valery Gergiev. I believe Sir Simon Rattle belongs to the great category, even though there seems to be some resentment towards him from certain quarters ever since he moved out of United Kingdom.

    • ==very fine orchestra seems to follow one truly great conductor followed by a more ordinary one.

      Yes, you put this very well.

    • Recalling Richard Adeney’s wonderfully candid autobiography ‘Flute!’ Abbado also had a mixed reception: too much new music and unfamiliar repertoire.
      I love hearing from orchestral players about conductors but it’s worth remembering that they inevitably have a skewed perspective.
      Adeney has the intelligence to acknowledge this as he remembered certain concerts as being dull but when hearing them later had a different reaction.

    • Rattle is a competent enough conductor, but he is certainly *not* great. With his clout, he is in the enviable position of having the genuine freedom to choose repertoire, programmes, soloists, &c., in a manner of which most conductors can only dream. Given those circumstances, I actually find Rattle a trifle disappointing, akin to an academic who regurgitates the same old lectures year after year, each time becoming more remote from the spark of genuine engagement with his/her field that inspired the research many decades before.

      In my view, the greatest and most inspiring UK-based conductor is undoubtedly Mark Elder. I have heard him live with various orchestras (and, as a Cambridge undergraduate, once played under him when he came to conduct a student orchestra there in 2012), most recently at last year’s Edinburgh Festival with the Hallé in a concert performance of Wagner’s /Siegfried/, which I found to be the best concert I have heard ever heard (it was so good that one was speaking elatedly to strangers afterwards about how great it was… most un-British, I know). But, of course, it is heresy to admit that as a Londoner, since it is tantamount to conceding that exciting stuff can happen north of the Watford Gap (the only circumstances under which it is acceptable to refer to such distant places is when lobbying for more money to be burned on white elephants in London, such as Rattle’s hare-brained schemes for a new concert hall which, as I have said elsewhere, will end up becoming little more than another overpriced commercial conference centre erected in a tax-efficient manner).

      • “it is heresy to admit that as a Londoner, since it is tantamount to conceding that exciting stuff can happen north of the Watford Gap”

        No it isn’t. Silly comment. London is full of people from elsewhere and awareness is higher than you think, or want to think.

        I’m wondering if you have anything at all to do with London.

    • In the ’58-’59 season, I heard a trainwreck in the opening of the 5th in Chicago with Reiner conducting. I giggled to myself.

  • JG. Last of the great leaders, but don’t believe everything he says in this book! Was vehemently against women joining the LSO and on subsequent guest periods as leader or conducting his New Years Strauss concerts, took every opportunity to belittle the women members. Thank god those days and attitudes have gone. But it took time…

    • About 1980, I went to a rehearsal at Royal Festival Hall where AP conducted and JG was leader. The soloist in Bruch 1st concerto was a teenage Bulgarian or Roumanian (I forget her name) who played nicely – am not sure what became of her since – but JG was doing nasty mind games which I’m sure intimidated her.

      Just before Previn gave the upbeat for the timpani roll, AG started playing the violin solo himself. Err… really John – who asked you ? And when the girl played her open g-string (the first note), JG gave a pursed lip scornful noise to his desk partner – clearly audible. It was obvious he thought string was out of tune or just not a very good violin.

      Mr Georgiadis, if you happen you read this (and I know from your website you love the internet) well SHAME ON YOU. I can’t imagine any of your contemporary UK concertmasters (like Carl Pini, Rodney Friend, Barry Grifiths. Michael Davis or the wonderful Hugh Bean) doing this Honestly it’s pushing 40 years now since this happened and I remember vividly.

      It’s all very well you criticizing Szell in your (admitedly interesting) book and saying what an ambassadorial role a c/master has but please look to your own behaviour

  • This was it – the scene of the crime :
    23 November 1978

    André Previn
    Galina Stamenova, violin
    Douglas Cummings, cello / Alexander Taylor, viola
    Debussy: Iberia
    Bruch: Violin Concerto No. 1
    Richard Strauss: Don Quixote

  • Talking of concert “disasters” , does Mr Georgiadis remember a certain leader bringing in the strings too early in a Strauss New Year concert ?
    Disaster was averted though.

  • I once saw the Cleveland Orchestra completely dissolve during the third movement of the Korngold Violin Concerto, under Ashkenazy, in Philadelphia. Unclear whether it was the conductor or the soloist who was “at fault,” though I am inclined to think it was probably the latter who lost his way. I believe it was the orchestra’s concertmaster, who at the time would have been Daniel Majeske. Immediately, Ashkenazy flipped his copy of the score back to the start of the movement, and everyone sprang as one into the do-over. The glitch was the matter of an instant, but, thanks to everyone being so quick on their feet, good will was restored.

    Anyway, while rare, these things do happen. Bad luck to have it at the start of Beethoven’s 5th, though! In the oft-repeated words of Beecham, “There are two golden rules for an orchestra: start together and finish together. The public doesn’t give a damn what goes on in between.”

    I saw Previn in concert several times. He was never less than good, and could be (as in Vaughan Williams and Strauss) a great deal more than satisfactory. But I imagine, despite his extensive experience conducting Hollywood musicians, who can sight-read anything, he might have come across as a little green before an orchestra steeped in the classics and unaccustomed to his own methods. The comparison to John Wayne could be read as a dual prejudice against both Previn’s American and cinematic origins – which is not to say the simile, in this instance, may not have been valid.

  • Thanks to the BBC at the time, AP brought classical music into the homes of people not familiar with classical concerts. It became normal in homes where it had hitherto been considered esoteric or just “not for us”. It would appear that virtually every orchestra in the UK (and quite a few others) are currently trying to reproduce this. Hardly a week goes by without some new big idea. All things considered, a good decision by the LSO I think.

    It’s a pity that TV companies, and the BBC in particular, doesn’t seem to be trying so hard these days, apart from a big dose of Proms, once a year.

  • First of all, Andre Previn had plenty of LSO stories himself–including its concertmasters. Too bad he isn’t with us to respond in person.

    Perhaps it would have been nice to wait until at least the 1 month anniversary of Maestro Previn’s death to post such an item? At the very least you have been posting heartful tributes from his ex-wife in just the last few weeks. Maybe we could have waited a few more before the knives came out?

    (Assistant to Andre Previn for 11 years; friend for 25)

    • Be honest, Kusman. You helped facilitate the break up of one of his marriages. Holier than thou you are not. Empty diatribe. You know what you did.

    • Refers to a Morecambe and Wise comedy sketch where Previn joined their act. Look it up on Youtube, 12 mins well spent………..

  • Wasn’t the LSO always a notoriously known poisonous orchestra of conductor-killers? I think I read somewhere
    that the only principal conductor who came out unscathed was the venerated frenchman Pierre Monteux…

    • You must be thinking of the New York Phil, but the LSO were tough on some conductors for sure. They gave a young Simon Rattle a torrid time. Celibidache gave THEM a torrid time though after JG and Tony Camden agreed to 11 pre concert rehearsals for some programs in the late 1970s and early 80s. They thought he would improve the orchestra. In some ways he got outstanding results, I heard an absolutely sensational/never been equalled Ritual Dances (Tippett) and a slow but exquisite Iberia. Still 11 rehearsals or not, the Galanta Dances at the very end suffered the same upbeat/downbeat confusion that occurred in the Beethoven 5. Utter disaster, a real mess.

      • I went to one of those: a Schumann symphony (can’t remember which), Debussy’s Prélude…, Rhapsodie Espagnole and the Tannhäuser overture. Exquisite.

        • Schumann 2. Tannhauser Overture was indeed absolutely spectacular, despite being “measured” (meaning a bit slow).

  • Ouch. I attended a performance of the 5th that started exactly that way and for exactly that reason, although the conductor in question was nowhere near Previn’s league (nor the orchestra in the LSO’s). But that conductor, too, wanted to “look” Bernstein-ish. It was like hearing the same performance in real time and again with a slight time delay. It all sorted itself out soon enough. My wife, who was in the violin section, said “he NEVER conducted it that way in rehearsal.”

    A buddy who was a bassoonist in the same orchestra put it best: “How is an orchestra different than a bull? A bull has the horns in front and the a**hole in the back ….”

  • John Georgiadis shows us just what is wrong with the classical music industry which despises those who popularise it like Previn did. There might have been greater conductors, but Previn was truly a fabulous musician with a tremendous charisma and did much to put bums on seats and provide orchestra members with a living.

  • You can’t practice without an orchestra. Beethoven 5 is much harder than it seems as are how to release and reattack the fermatas. I’m sure it didn’t take him long to figure it out but it must have been a bit embarrassing.

  • Not his only Ohio flub. During a performance as a soloist with the Cleveland Orchestra (at the Blossom Music Center), he finished a concerto an entire measure off from the orchestra, if my memory is correct.

      • Fair enough, It does seem to be rather idealised.
        More recent equivalents ( see the doc on English National Ballet) don’t jesttison awkward internal tensions.

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