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


Sommerfest Director's Credo: Classical Music Can Be Fun

by Rob Hubbard, Pioneer Press

In some ways, the Minnesota Orchestra's Sommerfest is like the Minnesota State Fair for classical music fans. Sure, it's on a much smaller scale, but it's more about comforting familiarity than challenging change. The 3½-week festival at Minneapolis' Orchestra Hall always takes the stuffiness out of the conventional concert experience, offering a flurry of popular pieces and some outstanding soloists, spicing things up with food and other performances outside.

Andrew Litton has been the artistic director of Sommerfest since 2003 and has renewed his contract through 2008. Litton could be called an international conducting star on the rise: After winning awards for recordings with the Dallas Symphony Orchestra, he has recently left his position as music director there to pursue more opportunities conducting in Europe and has re-established his family's home base in his native New York. We caught up with him via telephone there and asked him about this year's Sommerfest.

Q: With all of the engagements you're getting with major orchestras in the U.S. and Europe, what made you decide to stay on as the head of Sommerfest?
Litton: This was really a no-brainer for me. I love the orchestra. I think they are sensational, not only on the most basic level, in that they play fantastically well, but they're just so nice to work with. When you get a summer festival situation, where you're playing three different programs in a week – not one program three times – rehearsal time is at a minimum, and you need an orchestra with a great attitude.

When I took over Sommerfest, it was losing money badly, and the challenge I was handed was: "Fix this." And I'm so happy to say that we did. Last year, we ended with a small profit for the first time in years, and box office is up. So it was very easy for me to say, "Yes, I'd love to carry on," because, once you've turned something around, you want to stick around and enjoy the fruits of your labor.

And I love the Twin Cities. There's just so much to offer, and my kids really enjoy it. They're 7 and 10, and they've become friends with other orchestra kids, so they now have a set of Minnesota friends, which is lovely. So it's just a great place for me to be with the family on off-times, and it's become a wonderful part of our year.

Q: What performances have been most rewarding for you in your three years at Sommerfest?
Litton: Certainly, performing (Beethoven's opera) "Fidelio" stands out. I wanted to bring the semistaged opera finale back to Sommerfest, and we've done that, although we took last year off and performed Carmina Burana. But we're doing Carmen this year (Aug. 5), and I'm really excited about it. I really like this version, which I conducted with my former orchestra, the Dallas Symphony, in Vail last summer.

Looking back at highlights for me, Fidelio was a wonderful experience. And the very first concert I got to do at Sommerfest, when I performed the Beethoven Triple Concerto with (concert master) Jorja Fleezanis and (principal cellist) Tony Ross, and then conducted the Mahler First (symphony). That was just a thrill.

Q: What concerts are you most excited about this year?
Litton: I love having Osmo Vanska around. At first, I thought it would be a little unnerving having the music director very present and kind of looking over your shoulder. But it's turned out that he's such a lovely guy, and we've really hit off a friendship. He's one of the few conductors that I can really say is a friend. Conductors don't ever seem to be in the same place at the same time; we don't get to know each other. So playing chamber music with Osmo is going to be so much fun.

And we're also paying homage to two composers, Mozart on the 250th anniversary of his birth and Shostakovich on his 100th. I'm glad the administration agreed to allow me to conduct the Shostakovich Fifth Symphony. Granted, it's his most popular symphony, but that's really more "main season" repertoire. And, with violinist Anne Akiko Meyers playing Tchaikovsky, that's going to be a fabulous night.

I love that we're bringing back "Minnesota Idol" (a contest of local classical soloists upon which audience members vote). And I was fortunate to have been introduced to the playing of Nachito Herrera last summer. I said, "We have to get him on the festival." Just as we offered two generations of jazz with Oscar Peterson and John Pizzarelli a couple of years ago, we're doing the same thing this year with Dave Brubeck and Nachito Herrera.

Q: And Minnesota's most prominent piano competition, the e-Piano Competition, becomes part of Sommerfest this year.
Litton: People like to attend those types of events, especially in summer. Something that engages people and gets them talking: "Which one did you like best? Why? Oh, really? I liked this one." It's great in Minneapolis to have this ability to expand out of the hall and make it a whole evening's worth of experience. And I think having competition-type events over the course of Sommerfest is the same sort of thing, because it engages the audience. You're not only passively listening but actively involved in the process.

Q: Any changes you'd like to see in Sommerfest over the next few summers?
Litton: I really think we're heading in the right direction. One thing I've tried to do is have soloists do a pair of programs, so it becomes a minifest with that soloist. And I try very hard to engage people who have lovely summer-type personalities, so they, too, will engage with the audience. We're trying to say: "It's all about fun, and classical music can be fun. Here's the proof."

Originally printed in the St. Paul Pioneer Press, 9 July 2006.
Copyright © 2006 St. Paul Pioneer Press. All rights reserved.


Other insights

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

January 1993
The Young One

February 26, 1988
Conduct So Becoming