World Premiere of André Previn’s last work

André Previn – © Lillian Birnbaum, courtesy Boston Symphony Orchestra

With the passing of André Previn in February this year, the world lost an illustrious and wonderfully versatile conductor, composer, arranger, orchestrator and virtuoso pianist. Equally comfortable in both the classical and jazz arenas, Previn was working on what turned out to be his last composition when he died – a musical portrayal of Penelope, the heroine of Homer’s Odyssey. The world premiere of this work, set to a text by Tom Stoppard, will be presented at Tanglewood, the summer home of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, on July 24th.

This unusual performance features in the title role soprano Renée Fleming, who has graced the pinnacle of the operatic world for more than three decades, and has a repertoire of some of the world’s most beautiful arias. Ms Fleming will be accompanied by the Emerson String Quartet, of whom The Times in London wrote: “… with musicians like this there must be some hope for humanity”, and pianist Simone Dinnerstein – described by The Washington Post as “spellbinding”, with an “intoxicatingly rich, velvety sound ….”. Award-winning actress, Uma Thurman – to whom Ms Fleming refers as “dazzling” – takes the newly created part of the narrator.

Soprano Renée Fleming – © Andrew Eccles, courtesy Boston Symphony Orchestra

Penelope – dedicated by André Previn to Renée Fleming – is a concert work to words for string quartet and piano, telling of the loyal and steadfast wife of Odysseus, who waited 10 years for her husband’s return, following his conquest of the Trojans. To spare herself the attentions of numerous suitors, Penelope insisted that they all wait until she had woven a shroud for Laertes, the father of Odysseus, and every night for three years – until one of her maids revealed her secret – she unravelled the piece that she had woven by day so that she would not have to give up hope for the return of her beloved husband.

Award-winning actress Uma Thurman – courtesy Boston Symphony Orchestra

The incomplete manuscript for Penelope was found in Previn’s apartment, and his editor, David Fetherolf, created from it a full working score, to bring it to the concert stage. Prior to Mr Previn’s passing, the premiere of this work was intended to form part of Tanglewood’s celebration of his 90th year. Penelope – commissioned by the Boston Symphony Orchestra, the Ravinia Festival, Aspen Music Festival and School, and the John F Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts – is dedicated to the life and music of the legendary André Previn.

Pianist Simone Dinnerstein – © Liza-Marie Mazzucco

André Previn was the recipient of numerous honors and awards – the Austrian and German Cross of Merit, the Glenn Gould Prize, Lifetime Achievement Awards from the Kennedy Center, the London Symphony Orchestra, Gramophone magazine and Classic FM. As well as winning 10 Grammy Awards for his recordings, he was also honored with a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award from The Recording Academy, and won four Academy Awards. Maestro Previn frequently appeared as a guest with many of the world’s finest orchestras, was appointed Principal Guest Conductor of the NHK Symphony Orchestra, and held chief artistic posts with ensembles such as the Houston Symphony, Los Angeles Philharmonic, the Pittsburgh Symphony, the Royal Philharmonic and the London Symphony Orchestra.

The Emerson String Quartet – © Liza-Marie Mazzucco

One of André Previn’s most remarkable collaborations was with the LSO – a relationship which spanned more than 50 years. His appointment as Principal Conductor in 1968 marked the beginning of a new era for the LSO. He introduced new works to the Orchestra, many of the recordings that they made together remain the definitive versions even today, and under Previn’s leadership, the LSO performed to large audiences both in the concert hall and on television. The program André Previn’s Music Night not only turned the maestro into a star, but the LSO into a household name. When he stepped down after 11 years – the Orchestra’s longest serving Principal Conductor at the time – he became Conductor Laureate in 1992, and Conductor Emeritus in 2016. André Previn was given an honorary knighthood in 1996.

As a composer, André Previn was awarded the Grand Prix du Disque for his first opera, A Streetcar Named Desire. The second, Brief Encounter, was commissioned by Houston Grand Opera, and among his other compositions were a Harp Concerto – commissioned by the Pittsburgh Symphony – and a Double Concerto for Violin and Viola, written for Anne-Sophie Mutter and Yuri Bashmet.

The Ozawa Hall, Tanglewood, courtesy Boston Symphony Orchestra

According to Tom Stoppard, Penelope came about as the result of Previn’s frequently-made request for Stoppard to write a monodrama for the maestro’s friend, Renée Fleming. “I could never think of a story,” says Stoppard. “Then – from somewhere – came the story of Penelope …… It had love, it had grief, it had drama, it had a happy ending.” Stoppard writes about Previn with great warmth. Of their first meeting, he says: “We took to each other right away. Who could not take to André? He was, despite himself, glamorous. He was brilliant, funny, with Beatle looks, a huge hit with the LSO, and a popular favourite on TV.” (Who, indeed, could forget Previn’s legendary appearance with British TV comedians Morecambe and Wise! That a great man such as he should have participated in a comedy sketch at the expense of his own reputation speaks volumes about him as a person, as well as of his natural sense of fun.)

In a poignant footnote, Tom Stoppard says: “Previn’s Penelope for string quartet and piano, which would have been a 90th birthday present to himself, is now in memoriam.”

The world premiere of André Previn’s Penelope takes place at the Ozawa Hall, Tanglewood, on Wednesday, July 24th. For more information, please visit the Tanglewood website. Boston Symphony Orchestra program notes

Information sourced from:

Boston Symphony Orchestra program notes

London Symphony Orchestra obituary to André Previn

Artists’ websites:

Renée Fleming

Emerson Quartet

Simone Dinnerstein

Uma Thurman

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