Two years ago, four musical institutions — the Boston Symphony Orchestra, the Ravinia Festival, the Aspen Music Festival and School, and the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts — commissioned André Previn to write a piece for his approaching 90th birthday. The piece was to reunite him with two cherished artistic friends: the British playwright Tom Stoppard, with whom Previn had collaborated on the 1976 music drama “Every Good Boy Deserves Favour,” and American soprano Renée Fleming, for whom he had written the 1997 opera “A Streetcar Named Desire.”
It was a happy reunion, at least to hear Previn’s collaborators tell it. Forty years after their first work together, “we were together again, André at the keyboard in his flat in Manhattan, with Renée dropping by to look over his shoulder at the pencilled score,” said Stoppard in a statement provided by the BSO. Fleming wrote in a recent e-mail that Stoppard, whom she called “one of the most brilliant dramatists of our time,” had suggested the Homeric character of Penelope as the subject of the work in progress. “I was eager for a work that would depict a woman of substance,” she wrote, “and I think we were all attracted to the idea of a mythic heroine.”
Previn’s death, at 89, in February brought an end to an extraordinary and wide-ranging music career, one that encompassed both performance and composition and cut across classical, jazz, pop, Broadway, and film scoring. But it also left up in the air the fate of “Penelope,” on which Previn had done substantial work but that remained incomplete at his death.
Happily, the piece — which assumed form as a monodrama for soprano, string quartet, piano, and narrator — will have its premiere at Tanglewood on July 24, with a starry cast that includes Fleming, the Emerson String Quartet, pianist Simone Dinnerstein, and actress Uma Thurman as the narrator. That it is being heard at all is in large part the work of David Fetherolf, Previn’s editor for 22 years at the music publisher G. Schirmer and a close friend. Fetherolf was asked by Previn’s son Matthew to go through the manuscript and, if possible, create a working score from it.
The pages he worked from were mostly unnumbered, and there were no bar numbers. Fetherolf’s principal guide to the structure of the piece was Stoppard’s text, a vivid and sensual retelling of Penelope’s marriage to Odysseus, his departure for war and long absence, and his climactic return home. The story, said Stoppard, “had love, it had grief, it had drama, it had a happy ending.”
Fetherolf worked closely with Fleming and Emerson violinist Eugene Drucker in trying to do justice to his friend’s intentions. He explained in an e-mail that the biggest challenge in realizing the piece was the number of sections containing text that was set to be both sung and narrated. Initially, he explained, Fetherolf set everything to be sung, only to realize that the resulting version of the piece was about twice as long as Previn had told him it would be.
“So we had to decide which parts to go back and use the spoken settings for,” Fetherolf wrote, adding that they also jointly decided to give the spoken parts to a narrator, rather than having Fleming handle all the vocal duties. He then spent “a great deal of time speaking the text, altering tempi, and removing some bars of music.” Bringing it to its final form has been “an ongoing collaborative process,” he wrote.
What strikes him most about the finished piece is its portrait of the title character as “the hero of this story. She stood up to the Gods for 20 years while Odysseus was being played around with by them. She kept the kingdom together and the suitors at bay. She even presumed the Gods were still trying to toy with her on his return. In my mind, that’s a strong and independent woman.”
That the piece was intended for Fleming was clearly of special significance to Previn. Fetherolf noted that Previn had told him more than once that “whenever he wrote for soprano he was writing with Renée in mind no matter who was actually going to be singing.” Asked about the vocal writing, Fleming saw a direct line from the earlier pieces Previn had written for her to “Penelope.”
“André wrote beautifully for voice,” she wrote via e-mail. “The line moves comfortably throughout the range, and he not only captured the natural flow of the language in his settings, but he had a special gift for telling a story through declamatory music.”
Fetherolf called the experience of hearing the piece for the first time “deeply moving, especially in the final scene,” and he wrote that because it was intended as a partnership among friends, “Penelope” makes “a fitting and special end” to Previn’s career. Fleming agreed — yet at the end of her e-mail, she also touched on other projects, planned but never to be realized. After noting that she would miss “André’s fierce intelligence, playful wit, and great kindness,” she wrote that in his last months, “he kept asking me if we could record a jazz disc; even sending repertoire lists. If only . . .”
At Seiji Ozawa Hall, Tanglewood, Lenox, July 24, 8 p.m. Tickets $22-$78. 888-266-1200, www.bso.orgDavid Weininger can be reached at globeclassicalnotes@
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