NEW YORK — André Previn sounded disappointed to hear my voice on the other end of the phone when I called to set up a meeting.
How could he not be? The composer/conductor/pianist was expecting a call from superstar soprano Renée Fleming regarding their latest high-profile collaboration.
Fleming will premiere Previn's new song cycle, Lyrical Yeats, on Sunday at the Kimmel Center — and the 88-year-old Previn plans to be there for it. The two are also working with playwright Tom Stoppard on an opera of sorts titled Penelope.
That's Previn's life these days. Having won four Oscars as a Hollywood composer and arranger, he went on to lead six major orchestras, from Los Angeles to Oslo (with periodic Philadelphia Orchestra and Curtis Institute visits), to win 11 Grammys, and, in 1996, to be dubbed Sir Andre Previn in Britain. Now that arthritis limits his conducting and overall mobility, composing is his primary activity.
"In the last 20 years, I've probably composed more than in my whole life before that," he said. "I found that I really love doing it."
He has written three concertos for ex-wife violinist Anne-Sophie Mutter, his fifth and most recent wife. (Mia Farrow was, famously, his third.) The Fleming connection dates to his 1997 opera version of A Streetcar Named Desire. She will sing an aria from it Sunday.
"Premiering the role of Blanche DuBois in A Streetcar Named Desire was a real pinnacle in my career," Fleming said in an email.
Previn, she said, "writes in a musical language that is consistent and distinctly his own."
Also, few people on the face of the earth have a bigger storehouse of anecdotes than he does, from the Berlin-trained musician's arrival in Hollywood on the eve of World War II and his entry — in films from Gigi to Porgy and Bess to My Fair Lady — into a surreal world of movie stars and manufactured dreams. He has worked with director Vincente Minnelli. He's written songs for Gene Kelly and songs with Alan Jay Lerner. He's friends with John Williams. As a jazz pianist, he played concerts with Ella Fitzgerald.
Where does the conversation start with Previn? At his Upper East Side kitchen table — with his cat, Mischa, who laps up water from his drinking glass and who has good instincts for cheering up his master on a bad-arthritis day.
You used to be discredited for having once worked with Doris Day, Judy Garland.
Now, people think it's coolest thing in the world. And your album with Doris Day — Duet — is now considered a classic.
It has come full circle. Bryn Terfel [the Welsh opera star] said, "Oh, God, you worked with Howard Keel!'" And I said, "Are you serious? When I was working for the studio, I went in every day and did what they handed to me, because I had no choice." It was very wicked in those days. The only people who wrote the occasional concert piece were Rosza, Korngold, Alex North, and David Raksin.
And now, John Williams has written some concert works.
He's an old friend … and so talented. I keep saying, "John, stop it with Star Wars!" And he said, "Let me ask you a question: Your first opera, Streetcar, was a success everywhere. And [the second opera] Brief Encounter was not. Are you ever going to write another one?" I'm writing it now.
I asked, "Don't you feel like gambling on your talent?" And he said no.
When I finish a piece, it's time to write another one. I wrote a string quartet that I very diffidently mentioned to the Emerson Quartet. And they said, "Where is it?" I'm not used to that, to people saying, 'Yeah, right, sure.' … The damnedest cities play my music. I wonder, where do they even hear about it?
Tell me about this new opera.
I'm writing it with Tom Stoppard. It's an hour, one act … a monodrama. It's on the subject of Penelope [wife of the Greek warrior Ulysses]. I was on the phone with Renée the other day. I love her. She's my favorite singer. We decided that we should have a director even though there's no set.
You continue to write for Anne-Sophie Mutter [they were divorced in 2006]. And I see that you're still wearing your wedding ring.
I switched from the left hand to the right hand. You know how people say that their marriage didn't work? With us, the divorce didn't work. We call each other every day regardless of where we are. Maybe she's in China and I'm in Cincinnati, but we find each other. It's like being very best friends who have a romantic history. We ask each other's advice … have the occasional fight.
Do you disagree over the music you've written for her?
On certain occasions, she'll say, 'I don't like that.' And I'll either change it — or not.
As a conductor, you're most associated with Rachmaninoff and other composers whose sound was imitated during the golden age of Hollywood.
That's not quite fair. For me, everything begins and ends with Mozart. There can be a phrase, a bar, in Mozart, that moves me to tears every time I hear it. As a conductor, I've done as much Haydn as anybody. When I first got arthritis, it hit me in the wrist, and I have trouble playing [piano]. So I got the Emerson Quartet's recordings of Haydn chamber music, and it's so wonderful I can't even describe it.
You once told me that whatever orchestra you're working with, you want to be one of the boys.
It's my background. It would've been very nice had I gotten my education being a repetiteur [staff pianist] at an opera house in Wurttemberg. But I was at MGM.
I always get along with the brass section. My best friend in the Los Angeles Philharmonic was Tom Stevens, a sensational trumpet player. Once when we were at the Concertgebouw [in Amsterdam] … you have to walk up those stairs to get offstage. It's 33 steps — believe me, I counted them. I climbed those stairs. Everybody was applauding. It was very sweet. And Tom said, 'Maestro, you look like s-!' I don't mind that at all.
I'm not a trumpeter. Should I address you as Sir André?
Oh, come on! The only place where "sir" comes in handy is in airports … but I don't like being called Andy by someone I've never seen before.
Recital at 8 p.m. Sunday at the Kimmel Center. In addition to André Previn's Lyrical Yeats, Fleming will sing songs by Brahms, Faure, and Delibes, plus selections from the Strauss opera Ariadne auf Naxos.
Tickets: $49 to $149