Andrew Litton, conductor
Home Biography Engagements Reviews Recordings News Insights Gallery Contact

Maestro Andrew Litton takes us behind the scenes of Sommerfest 2016

By Pamela Espeland, The Minnesota Post

During a rehearsal Wednesday with the Minnesota Orchestra of a lively dance by Alberto Ginastera, conductor Andrew Litton leapt into the air several times. He was suffering from jet lag – he recently returned from Paris, where he led several performances by the New York City Ballet as its new music director – but you couldn’t tell from watching him. And it wasn’t evident during his lunch break, when he spoke of Sommerfest and why he keeps returning to Minneapolis in July.

Litton has been Sommerfest’s artistic director for 13 years, 14 if you count the lockout year. For orchestra fans, he’s part of the fabric of summer in the city. He spent 12 years with the Dallas Symphony Orchestra and 12 with the Bergen Philharmonic in Norway. He once told Playbill, “There’s a shelf life with conducting. If you stay longer than 12 years, you’d better make a plan to stay a lifetime.” How have we held onto him since 2003?

“This is one of those situations where it’s short enough and there’s enough variety that we don’t get tired of each other,” he said. “By the time I breeze in here every July, everybody’s like, ‘OK, it’s the summer guy.’ Everybody in the orchestra is ready for the kind of madness that Sommerfest engenders, but also the kind of fun, spontaneous music-making that I believe in and that actually is very easy to do with an orchestra of this stature and standard.”

In Paris, he led an orchestra of young musicians. “Having spent the last three weeks working with young players, to come in this morning at first rehearsal and just start conducting, and all this stuff is happening exactly where it should at the right time in the right place, and in tune, I’m I love working with young people, too, don’t get me wrong, but it is nice when you get the limo.”

The “madness” of Sommerfest is the number of concerts – 11 unique programs over eight days– and the speed with which it all happens. Litton is front and center in nine of the concerts, as conductor or pianist. Between Friday and Sunday, he’ll lead two symphonic concerts and play piano in two chamber music concerts.

“It’s challenging for me,” he said, “but we all put our necks on the line with Sommerfest, and that’s part of what makes it exciting. This is not the luxury of four or five rehearsals. This is two, three of you’re lucky. So you make good as fast as you can and rely on everybody’s talent the rest of the time – talent and good will.”

Litton has been Sommerfest’s artistic director for 13 years, 14 if you count the lockout year.

As artistic director, Litton chooses the programs and the soloists, “and then I run it all by everybody here. Since the lockout, the musicians have gotten much more involved with the day-to-day programming. It used to be just me and the vice president, and then marketing would weigh in. Now the players weigh in as well.”

Does that complicate things? “I spent 12 years working in Norway, where there are committee meetings to have committee meetings, so it doesn’t faze me at all. In fact, it’s kind of nice to share the blame. If something doesn’t work, I can point to someone and say, ‘This was your idea!’ I’m joking. Everybody buys into the final result, which is terrific. It’s not just about what Andrew wants. It’s about what’s good for the organization and what everybody here wants.”

What’s new about this Sommerfest? “This is the first time in 12 years that I haven’t done a Johann Strauss concert. The artistic committee thought it was time to give Strauss a little break.” Sorry, folks, no “Blue Danube.”

The Shakespeare theme is also new. “Of course, everybody’s doing Shakespeare because of the anniversary” (the 400th anniversary of his death). “We’re doing the Midsummer Night’s Dream overture [by Mendelssohn], and we have Verdi’s Otello to close, which is one of the greatest, if not the greatest, Shakespeare settings that anybody’s managed as a composer. It’s one of my five favorite operas that I haven’t done before, and I cannot wait. I’ve wanted to conduct this piece for decades.”

Litton’s original plan for operning weekend was to present a new young soloist, Chinese pianist Zhang Zuo, known as Zee Zee, and also welcome the return of veteran artist André Watts. Watts injured his back and is unable to travel, so Zhang Zuo will perform both nights and the program has been changed. “I got to work with Zee Zee in London last October, and I suddenly thought – she would be brilliant for Sommerfest, young and engaging, attractive and very talented.”

Also making their Minnesota Orchestra debuts, thanks to Litton, are violinist Nicola Benedetti and cellist Leonard Elschenbroich. “They are amongst the most brilliant young soloists in Europe today, and the fact that they’re a couple is fun and lovely, but they’re also great people. I love to bring people to Sommerfest I think the audience will find warm and engaging, and of course I’m going to make them talk. I always make them talk.”

What does the maestro consider the perfect Sommerfest concert? “One where the orchestra is in great form, the audience is loving it, there’s a great buzz in the house and then beautiful weather outside afterwards, so we can all go and enjoy the summer breezes.”

A leading conductor of his generation, Litton travels the world, guest-conducting major orchestras and opera companies. (Take a look at the list on his website.) Talking with him, you get the sense that he has real affection for Minnesota. “When I first started here, my kids were little, so I almost have a family connection with this place. It feels like home. I love the support this community has for the arts in general. It’s quite unusual, once you get out of New York, to have this sense of pride in not only the [Minnesota] Orchestra but the [St. Paul] Chamber Orchestra and the art museums and the theaters. Things are culturally at such a high level here that for somebody like me, coming in once a year, it’s very exciting. So I love coming back. I hope it goes on for a long time, but you never know.” Litton’s current contract continues through summer 2017.

Sommerfest begins this Friday, July 8, with a night of dance music by Copland, Liszt, Saint-Saens, Ginastera and Ravel. View the complete schedule here. If you go, plan to arrive early and stay late for free live music before and after the concerts, happy hour specials, food from vendors on the plaza and interactive Experience Cafés in the lobby. You can dress up if you want, but no one will care if you don’t. It’s summer.

Courtesy of The Minnesota Post, 7 Jul 2016

Other insights

February 2018
Why West Side Story composer Leonard Bernstein resonates with 21st-century music lovers

July 2017
Andrew Litton, Singapore Symphony Orchestra’s new principal guest conductor, is humbled by the power of music

July 2016
Maestro Andrew Litton takes us behind the scenes of Sommerfest 2016

January 2016
The conductor Andrew Litton, finding a different tempo

October 2015
Andrew Litton: a portrait of the artist as a mature conductor

July 2015
Still Going Strong: Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra at 250

December 2014
Andrew Litton to Lead New York City Ballet Orchestra

October 2014
Watch the YouTube videos from Rhinegold LIVE of Andrew performing selections from A Tribute to Oscar Peterson

September 2014
Colorado Symphony trades busy offseason for big Beethoven opener

May 2014
Podcast: Andrew Litton swaps his conducting baton for the piano for his latest recording, an album dedicated to the great jazz pianist Oscar Peterson.

May 2014
A Tribute to Oscar Peterson

April 2014
Transcribin’ the Blues

January 2014
The Broncos and the Colorado Symphony, both winning teams

April 2013
New Colorado Symphony Orchestra conductor Andrew Litton is a modern maestro

February 2013
Andrew Litton on bringing the Bergen Philharmonic to Edinburgh

January 2013
How the Norse code was cracked; Andrew Litton tells Ivan Hewett about achieving his goal of putting the Bergen Philharmonic on the musical map

January 2013
Karl Bohm is remembered fondly by Andrew Litton

December 2012
Andrew appears on BBC Radio3’s documentary, “Tchaikovsky’s 1812: A Dishonest Overture?” on Dec. 1st

November 2012
Colorado Symphony’s New Artistic Advisor Excited About The Holidays

September 2012
Andrew discusses Russian music, his career with Bergen, and upcoming concert with the NZSO with Radio New Zealand

June 2012
The June Gramophone Podcast asks Andrew about his 100th CD (starts at 23:30)

October 2011
Having some musical fun: virtuoso percussionist Martin Grubinger notes that this is the first time a Chief Conductor appears on stage as a bass marimba player

April 2011
TheArtsDesk Q&A: Conductor Andrew Litton

March 2011
Norwegians Can! Conducting the Bergen Philharmonic.

February 2011
Andrew discusses life with the Bergen Philharmonic with Edward Seckerson, (MP3)

October 2010
Andrew talks with ABC Classic FM’s Margaret Throsby about the joys of classical music, (MP3)

July 2010
Bach, re-imagined

April 2010
Musicians on the moments that changed them: Andrew Litton meets Oscar Peterson

March 2010
WUNC-FM’s Catherine Brand talks with Andrew Litton about the music and friendship of Vaughan Williams and Holst, (MP3)

March 2010
Andrew discusses the “Music that changed me” with BBC Music

March 2010
Andrew tells Opera Magazine “Wish I’d been there when...”

February 2010
Q & A with BBC Music Magazine’s Daniel Jaffé

January 2010
Jeremy Nicholas discusses the real George Gershwin with Andrew, as featured on the cover CD of January’s Gramophone Magazine, 34:03 (MP3)

August 2007
North Star: How does it feel to step into the shoes of a national treasure?

February 2007
Andrew reminisces about his favorite experiences with the DSO
(streaming video)

January 2007
NACOcast: Andrew chats with NAC’s Christopher Millard, 20:00 (MP3)

July 2006
Artistic director Andrew Litton seeks to make the music festival fun

July 2006
Sommerfest director’s credo: Classical music can be fun

March 2006
BBC Radio 4: In Tune with Sean Rafferty, 17:01 (MP3)

February 2006
Passed Up by the NSO, Concerto For Contrabassoon Premieres in Norway

January 2006
Litton considers Gershwin a neighbor

December 2005
New developments on ENO Music Directorship

December 2005
ENO regrets? No, just plans

July 2005
My First Opera: Lucia di Lammermoor

January 2005
Denver latest stop for conductor Litton

October 2004
MPR: Andrew Litton’s guide to the Shostakovich 8th forum discussion, 50:55 (WMA)

May 2004
What’s next for Andrew Litton?

August 1997
BBC Radio 3: In Tune with Anthony Burton, 16:08 (MP3)

August 1997
BBC Radio 4: Kaleidoscope with Paul Gambaccini, 7:53 (MP3)

September 1995
Dallas Symphony Dynamo

August 1994
The Linking of Litton and Gershwin

August 1993
A Conversation with Bruce Duffie

January 1993
The Young One

February 26, 1988
Conduct So Becoming