Andrew Litton, conductor
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Music That Changed Me

An interview with BBC Music’s Helen Wallace

Andrew Litton, born in New York in 1959, was assistant to Mstislav Rostropovich at the National Symphony Orchestra and the principal conductor at the Bournemouth and Dallas Symphony Orchestras, before becoming music director of the Bergen Philharmonic in Norway. He has made over 80 recordings, including Mendelssohn Symphonies Nos. 1 and 4, named Disc of the Month in our February issue. In March he tours the UK with the Bergen PO: The Sage, Gateshead (22,23), Derby Concert Hall (24) and Cadogan Hall (25).

I was fortunate to grow up in New York with parents who loved music. I’m just old enough to have experienced Vladimir Horowitz’s return to performance and the playing of Arthur Rubenstein. I started learning piano just before my sixth birthday and loved it. The big moment came when I started attending Leonard Bernstein’s televised concerts for young people when I was about nine. He was a pivotal figure for me, although I never knew him personally. He conducted Respighi’s Pines of Rome: it was so visceral, so colorful and descriptive, and he was his usual animated self. I came out of that concert and said to my mother, ‘I want to be a conductor!’.

My godfather was Richard Horowitz, who had been principal timpanist at the Met since 1946. When my mother told him of my intentions, he said ‘I’ll take care of that’ – and from that point on, three or four times a week, I sat with him in the pit at the Met, watching everything. It was the most wonderful exposure to music making. I could watch the singers, and it was fascinating to me how different musicians could sound depending on the conductor.

In the 1972-72 season, Bernstein conducted Bizet’s Carmen, and I cut school and went to all the rehersals and five of the performances. That felt like my production of Carmen and when the LP came out, it was mine! A year or two later, PBS started broadcasting Bernstein’s cycle of the Mahler symphonies. I taped Mahler Four and I fell in love with the composer: my first encounter.

Jumping backwards, when I was eight I was given my first opera recording, the first Maria Callas, Giuseppe di Stefano, Tito Gobbi recording of Puccini’s Tosca conducted by Victor de Sabata. I couldn’t stop listening to it, it sizzled from the first note on.

Much later on, in 1983, one of the first CDs to be released was the 60-song set of the George & Ira Gershwin Song Book, with Ella Fitzgerald. I listened to nothing else for months – they are such beautiful arrangements and Fitzgerals sings with such amazingly innate and gorgeous phrasing. As Ira once sald ‘I never knew how good our songs were until Ella sang them’. Her interpretaions are definite, up there with a Fischer-Dieskau Witerreise. Her naturalness inspires me, it’s what I try to hold on to.

I had wonderful teachers at the Juilliard School, but the real test came when I auditioned for Mstislav Rostropovich at the National Symphony Orchestra. This was the ultimate finishing school. He was the last great influence on me, an incredible inspiration, as a musician and a force of nature. I’d see him in the shadows at my concerts and as soon as they were over, he was right at my elbow citing chapter and verse on what I’d done wrong – or occasionally – right. People criticised his technique as a conductor, but Slava knew what a great conductor looked like. He was a brilliant and generous teacher, I think because he had been a real student himself – of people like Shostakovich and Prokofiev. Slava’s take-no-prisoners attitude to music making worked well in the Shostakovich symphonies: here was a man who wanted no one to be standing at the end. And that rubbed off on me. He came to Bournemouth in our centenary season, and played the Dvořák Concerto. he was the most difficult soloist I’ve ever worked with – he was in charge. At first, he was ready to lay into me, but when he came off stage he said ‘Andrushka, you are a real conductor now’ – that was 11 years after I was his assistant. His playing always spoke to your innermost being. To witness this at such chose hand – what a privilege.

Read the entire article in the March 2010 issue of BBC Music Magazine.

This interview was first printed in the March 2010 issue of BBC Music Magazine. Copyright © 2010 BBC Music Magazine. All rights reserved.

Other insights

February 2018
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July 2017
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July 2016
Maestro Andrew Litton takes us behind the scenes of Sommerfest 2016

January 2016
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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