Culture Vulture: Andre Previn and the Art of Literate Conversation

by Helen Epstein
Go here for information about a live-chat, scheduled for August 23rd, with Helen Epstein on “The Art of Narrative Writing.”

Martin Bookspan and Andre Previn conversing at Tanglewood

Martin Bookspan and Andre Previn conversing at Tanglewood. Photo credit: Ron Barnell

They were around for most of my lifetime, I thought as I listened to Martin Bookspan, the 83-year-old radio announcer and music commentator and 80-year-old conductor, composer, and jazz artist Andre Previn.

They sat in two armchairs, each holding a cane, two old men on the stage of the Tanglewood Music Shed, and their conversation was so easy, so literate, and so entertaining that they could have gone on for hours and kept their audience interested.

Bookspan grew up in Boston of the 1920s. His career as a music commentator began when, as a teenager, he received an honorable mention in a Boston Herald music contest. Leonard Bernstein won First Place and the two became friends. After graduating from Harvard, Bookspan became the “voice” of the Boston Symphony Orchestra and later the voice of the PBS Series “Live from Lincoln Center” as well as a frequent commentator on New York classical music station WQXR.

He had the good sense to say very little and simply gave prompts to Sir Andre (knighted in 1996), who in addition to being a miraculously multi-gifted musician is one of the music world’s wittiest raconteurs. He is also an inspiration to us younger folks: at 80, his coming year includes composing five new musical commissions, spending a month in Japan, conducting in Europe and North America, playing classical music in his Trio and performing jazz with bass player David Finck as he will do tomorrow night in Ozawa Hall.

Andre Previn at Tanglewood.

Andre Previn at Tanglewood. Photo credit: Ron Barnell

Speaking in his understated way, Previn who wrote a wry memoir titled “No Minor Chords: My Days in Hollywood,” told anecdotes of composers, conductors and orchestras he worked with. Then Bookspan gave him a surprising prompt: “Lenny Bruce?”

“How many of you in the audience have an idea who Lenny Bruce was?” Previn asked.

A surprising number of people raised their hands and, encouraged, Previn launched into a story.

“Lenny Bruce used to say things long before it was OK to say so,” he began. “We played in the same club in San Francisco for a time. There was a bookstore called Books Incorporated where I lusted after a three-volume collection of Mozart letters. They cost $25 but they might as well have been $250. I didn’t have $25. I must have said something about it because the next thing I knew Lenny Bruce presented me with them. I knew he didn’t have any money either and I told him I couldn’t accept such a gift.

He hadn’t paid for the books, Lenny Bruce said. He had stolen them.

That made it even more difficult for Previn to accept the present. He told Bruce to take them back.

It was then that Lenny Bruce divulged that he was on parole and if he admitted the theft and returned the books, there was a good chance he’d be locked up.

“I said okay,” Previn reminisced. “I’ve still got them at home. The only copy in the world of Mozart letters signed by Lenny Bruce.”

If you can get to Tanglewood to hear Previn play tonight, do it!!

Helen Epstein is the author of “Joe Papp: An American Life” and “Tina Packer Builds a Theater.”


  1. Dan the Music Master on August 17, 2009 at 6:22 am

    I enjoyed the article. Hearing Andre Previn perform is always an absolute treat.

  2. Ron Barnell on August 19, 2009 at 2:25 pm

    I have been taking photos for Mr. Bookspan’s engaging conversations with famous music persons for many years now. It was fascinating to capture the maestro’s changing expressions at this talk. Ms. Epstein has neatly captured
    the historic flavor of the event in her fine article. (The photo’s have been posted on the
    Tanglewood Flickr Group website)

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