Who’s the next Mr Preview?

Today’s anonymous conductors could take a leaf out of André Previn’s crowd-pleasing book

Music
André Previn on the Morecambe and Wise Show in 1971: The biggest audience for a conductor since Toscanini died (©BBC ARCHIVE)

If you hadn’t noticed that the Philharmonia Orchestra has a new chief conductor, don’t feel too bad about it. The appointment by a disappearing London institution of yet another double-barrelled Finn is unlikely to set hearts pounding in Penge or points south, no matter how gifted the young chap might be. Santtu-  Matias Rouvali his name is, and he told The Times in a PR interview that he rips the hide off woodland deer before cooking it—anything to obtain a sliver of public attention. Well, that’s pretty much all the general public are ever going to hear about him.

There was a time when Britain woke up to orchestral crises over breakfast—save the Philharmonia, the LSO, the Royal Philharmonic, whichever band had outshot its finances and faced a visit from the grim receiver. Orchestras, we were led to believe, were our national heritage and each and every one of them had a special character that required preservation. No more. London orchestras in a blind testing can seldom be told apart one from another and their repeat-visa conductors are so faceless that, were you to ask passengers on the Penge omnibus (it’s the 176), the only one they could possibly name is Simon Rattle, maybe because he’s English and a Sir.

The odds against a London orchestra ever being famous again are roughly equivalent to Charlton Athletic winning the FA Cup, something they last did in 1947 when the Philharmonia was in its first season. The difference? You can still read about Charlton Athletic’s performance in the papers every weekend. The Philharmonia? Hardly ever.

Orchestras have sunk 80,000 leagues below the radar and they have no clue what they might do to arise once more as interesting, useful and—what’s the word?—woke members of society. Esa-Pekka Salonen, the departing Philharmonia chief, tried new technology. Result: glazed eyes. The LSO plays once a year under pigeon droppings in Trafalgar Square. The tourists like it. The locals walk on by. Who conducted? No one knows.

The last maestro to win popular acclaim died earlier this year amid fond chuckles and snobbish disparagement. André Previn never inspired the overwhelming confidence of musicians. The LSO leader John Georgiadis recalls in a new Amazon-available memoir, Bow to Baton, that he responded to Previn’s appointment with the declaration: “I greet this news with utter dismay!”  Things got no better:

Previn didn’t rate high on technique. And although he had made a favourable impression nobody in the orchestra other than desperate directors considered him a suitable candidate for chief conductor
. . .  Soon there was a detectable loss of authority emanating from the podium . . . However, the flip side to this general concern over playing standards was that it quickly became apparent that the public were taking to Andre very well, and when the BBC began to use him for a very successful TV series it was soon obvious that his relaxed manner and fluent humour would be a great asset to the orchestra in this medium.

And so he was. Previn had a Hollywood wife, wore a Beatles crop and Carnaby Street suits and was quick with a quip. His Christmas 1971 sketch on The Morecambe and Wise Show drew the biggest audience for any conductor since Toscanini died; his less-viewed return to the show a year or so later sparkled with perfect delivery of football one-liners. When Eric said he had played the Grieg concerto last time they were on together, Andre shot back: “You would have been better off playing Luton.”

He complained bitterly about being made to look ridiculous on the show, but he embraced the absurdity with such enthusiasm that it smacked of pure calculation on his part. Previn, as Georgiadis describes him, could be a crabby little man, concerned for his creature comforts and the dignity of his office. But he was heart and soul a showman who, like all crowd-pleasers from Handel to Louis Armstrong, knew where to find the public G-spot and when to stop tickling.

Watch him on that barely-rehearsed Christmas show and you will see not only the most perfect gag timing since the metronome’s invention but also Previn’s dewy-eyed respect for Morecambe and Wise as masters of comic choreography. A maestro of any vanity would never have put himself in their hands. “It took me 20 years to build up my reputation as a musician,” Previn chides Eric, “and in five minutes you made me into a complete nonentity.”

That line rings so painfully true one has to wonder why André agreed to do the show at all. If not for personal gain—and it took him the rest of his life to live down Eric’s “Mr Preview” tag—then he must have done it primarily for the benefit of his orchestra, to project its role in public entertainment, neither elitist nor remote, and nonetheless essential. Georgiadis, who had more reasons than most to dislike him, concedes that Previn’s 11 years were “a high point in the LSO’s history”.

Which prompts the question: can anyone do it again? Not the Finns, that’s for sure. They have one joke between them and it’s about shoelaces. Nor are other modern maestros much use when they step off the box and into the public arena. Gustavo Dudamel has been on Sesame Street and Andris Nelsons can throw a mean baseball to open the Boston sporting season but that’s pretty much the limits of the present crop’s public engagement.

Unless you count Yannick Nézet-Séguin, music director of the Philadelphia Orchestra and the Metropolitan Opera, who has lately been doing the rounds of daytime television studios chattering away about the playlists that he makes for his cats when he’s away from home. Cue for a few jokes? Depussy? Furr Elise? Cathetique Sonata?

No, he’s being purrfectly serious. That’s how bad it has got.