Andrew Litton: a portrait of the artist as a mature conductor

Andrew Litton: a portrait of the artist as a mature conductor

Pick a date that has changed the musical destiny of Bergen, and one strong answer would be 12 November 1998.

Text: John Allison
Photo: Steve J. Sherman

If the weather that night will not jog many memories (rain, probably …), the programme might: an all-Shostakovich affair consisting of the Violin Concerto No. 1 and the Symphony No. 5. On the podium was a 39-year-old New Yorker, new to the city but with a strong track record behind him, including music directorships with the Bournemouth and Dallas Symphony Orchestras (indeed, he was then midway through his Texan tenure).

Andrew Litton takes up the story of autumn 1998 with a certain candour: ‘I was shocked when I showed up in this nice little town late one night, it was pouring with rain, and I said to myself, “Has my career tanked so much that I’m here to conduct an orchestra in this dark outpost?”. The next morning I opened the hotel-room curtains and it was sunny, there was powdery white snow on the mountains, and I thought, “Well, at least it’s pretty”. I walked over to the hall and wasn’t expecting too much when I gave the preparatory beat for the beginning of Shostakovich’s Fifth, but then the lower strings came in with a tremendous “Bah Dum!”. I almost fell backwards, it was such a shock. As I’ve described it before, it was love at first beat!’

The rest is not quite history, because it took a few years for the relationship to develop, and even now that Litton’s acclaimed music directorship (2003-15) is coming to a close, his association with the Bergen Philharmonic will continue under the new title of music director laureate. Still, there is something neat about the close of Litton’s contract coinciding with the orchestra’s 250th anniversary. ‘Yes, it is amazing, because when you start with an orchestra you never have any idea how long you’re going to stay. Actually, I think 12 years is just about perfect for a job like this, but to make the dates work we did a little bit of cheating. Theoretically, I’m done with my 12-year contract already — August 31 was technically the last day of my12th season — but the orchestra kindly extended me through to October 8, to the actual 250th anniversary, so that we could celebrate together.’ This also makes Bergen the longest of the conductor’s posts to date; Dallas was exactly 12 years.

By another happy coincidence, Litton conducted his 250th concert with the Bergen Philharmonic this year, back in April. ‘That’s a lot, because this orchestra plays one concert a week, sometimes two, but never the four a week we did in Dallas. These numbers go up much faster in America. So that was a cool stat to have this year, but it was fate and pure fluke — I’m grateful that someone was counting.’

Is he sad to be giving up his Bergen post? Was it a tough decision, especially considering the old if-it-ain’t-broke-don’t-fix-it adage, to close this happy chapter? ‘Yes, but don’t forget that there’s a shelf life with conducting. If you stay longer than 12 years, you’d better make a plan to stay a lifetime. There’s a point beyond which you can’t push things further, and need fresh blood. I’m one of the longest-serving music directors in this orchestra’s history — poor Grieg lasted only two years! — and it’s time for someone else to row this boat. To leave when you’re at the top of your game is the smart thing to do, because who wants to hear, “Gee, how many more years are you going to stick around?”. I’ve made so many amazing friends here, and the fact that I’m going to see them for three weeks every year under our conductor laureate arrangement means that it’s not goodbye. We’ll be continuing with some of our recording projects too. There are still a few Prokofiev symphonies to go, we have to finish Freddy Kempf’s Prokofiev’s concerto cycle, and Holst’s The Planets is still to come, among other things.’

Litton holds a similar title in Bournemouth, even 21 years after his departure. ‘Since I left in 1994 I’ve been back every season. It feels like a wonderful legacy. But the irony of it is that when I return there are now only about ten players left from the orchestra as I knew it in 1994. I look around and think, “Where does this wonderful youth orchestra come from?!” I’m the elder statesman when I come back. That’s the life cycle, but one of the things that makes music fresh is that’s constantly rejuvenating itself.’

I remind Litton that conductors are famous for their longevity, working longer than people in most other professions. ‘From your mouth to God’s ears — let’s hope so! When I left Bournemouth, I was 34 and the average age of the orchestra was 34. When I went to Dallas, the average age was 44, so I was the kid. Now it’s gone full circle, but I don’t mind. It’s very easy to say this at my age, but it feels so much better now to be conducting than it did when I was in my 20s. I’m so much more relaxed about certain elements — I’ve been there, done that. I know how to fix things, and nothing surprises me any more. It’s a wonderful place to be, being able to get the best results.’

Bergen has certainly benefitted from Litton’s maturity as a musician, but there have also been constant things about his musical personality from the start, not least a consistent interest in certain parts of the repertoire. The programme of his 250th concert in April — Korngold, Mahler, Lehár — reflected his passion for Viennese music both serious and popular. ‘This one was a fun “Night in Vienna” programme, a mixture of Viennese schmalz.’ Unsurprisingly, he has does some American music, but not at the expense of other things. ‘That hasn’t been my aim. Of course, we played my suite from Porgy and Bess in May at the Bergen International Festival, and we did Bernstein’s Age of Anxiety last year, but I haven’t wanted to be too American about my programming. There’s so much other wonderful music out there. We’ve also done a lot of new Norwegian music of course — that’s our responsibility — by major composers who are now having international careers.’

Litton has also nearly always been associated with Russian music, and though he doesn’t claim to have changed the Bergen Philharmonic’s repertoire here, he has been inspired to do more by the orchestra’s natural feeling for this music. ‘Yes, we’ve done our fair share of the Russian stuff, and as you know the first thing I conducted as a guest here was Shostakovich. Perhaps the intensity here that so blew me away was partly down to the fact that one of my predecessors was Dmitry Kitaenko, so they’d had plenty of experience under him. But it’s one thing to know the notes, another to play them with a sense of abandon, as I was taught by Rostropovich. That first experience in Bergen made me want to do all my favourite pieces with this orchestra. So we started with Shostakovich, and once BIS — our record company — had come along and recorded all our Mendelssohn, we thought let’s do Stravinsky. We’d already done The Rite of Spring together in my first season as music director, and now I’d call it our party piece. We took it to the 2015 Proms, so this felt like a perfect way to end — almost where we began.’

Has their interpretation of The Rite of Spring changed, and how does that reflect the way the orchestra has evolved over the last 12 years? ‘I think American musicians by nature bring a rhythmic integrity that is maybe less relevant to their European counterparts. So more than at the start, I’d say that we are playing works like the Stravinsky with a great sense of rhythm. It’s great to have seen and felt that change. At the same time the orchestra has increased its flexibility as well, but the driving pulse is boss. I was very pleased with the Walton First Symphony we gave at the Proms in 2007. You can’t do that with an orchestra that doesn’t have a great sense of inner pulse.

‘Of course, the orchestra has changed in other ways too. As happens naturally in an orchestra’s life, people come and go, perhaps retire, and the changeover has been substantial. About half the personnel have changed in my 12 years, and that has brought a change to the sound and style. It continues to be a remarkably international orchestra. If you go to Finland, for instance, only two countries away, most of the of the orchestras are predominantly Finnish in their make up. Bergen has 20 nationalities, which gives us a wonderful sense of independence from tradition. You’re not having constantly to undo stuff. Maybe you have to teach stuff — but only once, the first time. After that it’s there.’ And the sound? ‘The Bergen Philharmonic has an innately beautiful string sound that’s wonderful to work with. For me it’s been a dream to have that deep dark timbre, coupled with the incredible, visceral impact of our expert brass and percussion and the character of the woodwinds. This orchestra has the full palette of colours, with no apologies needed for any section. I think I’m leaving it in good shape. And it’s an extremely well run orchestra too. It’s nice to work with an orchestra where you’re not worrying about the next pay cheque!’

For his part, Litton is widely credited with having given the orchestra a new self-confidence and a more international outlook. ‘That’s really what I signed on for. Right from the start of our association, the orchestra was wonderful in always asking me back. Then from 2001 they started asking me to be music director, but I was still well ensconced in Dallas —in my seventh year there — and the two orchestras were so far apart geographically. Don’t forget that until recently Bergen was a very hard place to fly to! So I said, “You need someone who can devote a lot of time and energy to putting the orchestra on the map, I can’t help you guys”. Finally, on another return, two of the orchestra members took me out to dinner — one very fast way to my heart is through a nice meal! — and I listened to what they had to say. They said, “The orchestra has voted, and we want you unanimously”. So I thought to myself, what political figure ever has a unanimous vote in his constituency, I must be mad to be fighting this. So I turned the tables on them, and said, “This is going to be a lot of hard work. You’re no longer going to be able to go to your huts in the country at weekend for fishing. You are going to be on the road, making recordings.” It was their eagerness that made it possible for me. A conductor can’t do this on his own. I had a completely motivated orchestra, management, board. All the ingredients were there. So that made it easier — though I still had to go to the management in New York and ask them to take a chance on us doing an American tour, I still had to go to the Hyperion record label and ask them to check us out. Once people heard the orchestra and saw what it is capable of, there was no turning back. I’m so proud that Bergen is now one of the most recorded orchestras in Europe, that we’ve gone from virtually nothing — the little homemade hobby CD companies — to the big international labels and reviews every month in the international press. This is a dream come true.”

Though Litton may have injected plenty of New York chutzpah — ‘I know that Chinese word’, he jokes — he did so only because he knew it was possible to achieve things. ‘You have to recognize that you have a product worth promoting and deserving wider exposure. I found that with my previous orchestras too. At Bournemouth, we went on an American tour — the orchestra had never been west of Penzance — and it changed their life. Dallas had only ever been on one European tour before, and we did three, including debuts at the Proms and the Musikverein. That was my first time at the Musikverein too, so it was very special, but with Bergen we achieved a residency there, on top of debuts at the Proms and Concertgebouw. It’s been a joyful process. Bergen has been in some ways the greatest artistic decision I’ve made in my life, because together we ended up being far better than I could ever have imagined.’

But Bergen has been a long way from his home base in New York, and Litton is happy that his new job will keep him at home for a change: this season he becomes music director of New York City Ballet. ‘It’s a totally different sort of ballet company. Some people, mostly in England, have been puzzled by this “career move”. But look, I’ve been a conductor for 33 years, doing a lot of the same repertoire — as well as learning new Norwegian music in the last 12 years — and I wanted the challenge of something new. I love being in a theatre, and the feeling of waiting for the curtain to go up and taking the audience on a magic trip. This is a ballet company made for a conductor like me. The repertoire of NYCB is unique, full of things — like all the Stravinsky ballets — I want to conduct. You can’t programme these pieces in concert. And it’s the third orchestra of Lincoln Center, one that needs to develop its profile. I like to think that we can build something with NYCB that they haven’t yet had. Peter Martin, the ballet master, is very supportive and wooed me by telling me that the founder, George Balanchine, used to say that music comes first. They’re making a fuss of me when the winter season starts in January and I’ve picked the programme to represent the three major choreographers in the company’s history, so after the overture from Candide —with the pit raised — we’re doing the Barber Violin Concerto (one of Peter Martin’s pieces), then Bernstein’s Fancy Free (Jerome Robins) and finally the Gershwin ballet Who Cares? (Balanchine), of which I made the first recording. But before all that there is the seasonal Nutcracker. Everyone laughs when I mention this, but excuse me, I’ve never done this piece. So I’m doing the whole opening weekend — five performances in a row. I want in!’

First, though, there will be two emotional farewells in Bergen: Mahler’s Third Symphony, and then the 250th gala programme, which Litton is sharing with his successor. Edward Gardner. Litton explains why he chose Mahler’s mighty edifice for his leave-taking. ‘Mahler is my favourite composer for orchestra, and we’ve done the whole cycle here, including the Tenth. The Third is the ultimate goodbye piece in so many ways, but no one’s dead at the end, which is nice. It also involves the chorus. I did the Second for my farewell in Dallas, so I wanted something different and the Third is an incredible piece to do at this moment. I hope I can keep it together — emotionally, I mean. Even though I am not saying goodbye, it will be a bittersweet occasion. It’s been an amazing 12 years of my life, and the only thing I won’t miss about this job is the weather!’