PREVIN: Trio for Oboe, Bassoon, and Piano
André Previn (1929–2019) excelled as a conductor, composer, pianist, author, and educator. He moved seamlessly from one role to another just as he did between musical styles, since he was as adept in jazz as he was in classical idioms.
Following childhood study in his native Berlin, he moved in 1938 (with his family) to Paris, where his teachers at the Conservatory included the organist Marcel Dupré. The next year the family proceeded to Los Angeles. While still an adolescent he embarked on a career as a jazz pianist and as an arranger and orchestrator for the MGM Studios. Studies with such prominent Los Angeles-based composers as Ernst Toch, Joseph Achron, and Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco followed.
By the early 1950s Previn was studying conducting with Pierre Monteux (then Music Director of the San Francisco Symphony) and setting his sights on a concert career. Nonetheless, it was as a Hollywood orchestrator that he first made his mark, earning Oscars for his scoring of the films Gigi (1958), Porgy and Bess (1959), Irma la Douce (1963), and My Fair Lady (1964). He made his symphonic conducting debut in 1962 with the Saint Louis Symphony and soon began a series of music directorships at the Houston Symphony, London Symphony, Pittsburgh Symphony, Los Angeles Philharmonic, and Royal Philharmonic.
In the 1990s he lightened his conducting obligations to devote more time to composing. This led to a corpus of works that included numerous concertos, two operas (including A Streetcar Named Desire, premiered in 1998 by San Francisco Opera), and many chamber pieces. The sound of his Trio for Oboe, Bassoon, and Piano (composed in 1994 and premiered two years later) seems redolent of twentieth-century France, recalling the trio written for those forces in 1926 by Francis Poulenc, whose ghost lurks around many corners of this piece.
The first movement (marked Lively) initially pits the oboe and bassoon as a team “versus” the piano in a section whose opening motif bristles with a rocket of sixteenth-notes; but soon the bassoon introduces a more lyrical melody, rather Mozartian in its contours. The material of both sections is developed in some detail, sometimes spiced by sudden shifts of meter.
The piano opens the second movement (Slow) with a lament of far-reaching contours. When the oboe enters, it does so with the instruction “lonely,” as the composer makes use of the more doleful propensities of the instrument’s tone. The subdued mood maintains throughout, with the winds only once (at the movement’s center) allowing their sorrow to break forth to fortissimo—and then withdrawing to let the piano pursue its pensive thoughts solo.
Spirits are restored, however, for the finale (Jaunty); as in the opening movement, the players are somewhat segregated at the snazzy-jazzy outset—piano vs. winds—and the bassoon introduces a slower section in counterpoint to a spacious line in the piano. The moods alternate with some suddenness, but the three players unite in the final pages for a high-energy conclusion. —James M. Keller
James M. Keller is Program Annotator of the San Francisco Symphony and the New York Philharmonic. He is the author of Chamber Music: A Listener’s Guide, published by Oxford University Press.