Andrew Litton, conductor
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The Young One

by Tim Smith, music writer

An American conductor has been making waves in the music world. Now he's set for a splash in South Florida

When the Florida Philharmonic booked Andrew Litton to lead its first concerts of 1993, no one could have known that the young conductor's stock would be rising so much higher right now. On December 10, the Dallas Symphony Orchestra announced Litton's appointment as music director, effective June 1994.

For a major American orchestra to choose an American conductor is newsworthy in itself; most ensembles in this country continue to seek foreign talents. But it was probably only a matter of time before Litton was tapped for such a post. Since 1982, when he won an international conducting competition while still a Juilliard student, he has been making musical waves.

After completing his studies, he served as an assistant conductor in one of the world's greatest opera houses, Milan's La Scala. Next came a distinguished stint as assistant and then associate conductor of the National Symphony Orchestra in Washington, D.C.

In 1986, he caught the attention of the much-respected, nearly century-old Bournemouth Symphony in England. He started that year as a principal guest conductor. Two years later, at the ripe age of 29, he became the orchestra's principal conductor and artistic advisor, the first American to have those titles. In short order, he was credited with rejuvenating the British ensemble, which has won increasing acclaim, both for its concerts and its recordings.

Along the way have been conducting debuts for Litton at the Metropolitan Opera and London's Covent Garden; this season he led the first American work ever given in the latter — Gershwin's Porgy and Bess — to ecstatic reviews. He also has guest conducted the Chicago Symphony, Philadelphia Orchestra and the Los Angeles Philharmonic, among many others.

Part of Litton's success may be traced to his personality — affable, unpretentious, optimistic. And then there is the matter of talent. He has that in abundance.

The conductor discussed his career and musical views during a recent phone interview.

"I always secretly hoped for an American post," he said. "It is very nice to receive this honor [the Dallas appointment]. Perhaps it will start a trend of American orchestras hiring American conductors. I don't think there has been anything outwardly plotted to keep Americans out of top posts here; it just tends to happen.

"Orchestra players like the sense of the Austro-German tradition, so they often look conductors from those countries. It's easy to lost sight of the fact that American musicians are probably the most well-rounded and flexible in the world."

Well-roundedness and flexibility have contributed to Litton's popularity with the Bournemouth musicians — and audiences. And those attributes have clearly offset any reservations about his relative youthfulness.

"It's very exciting to be what people consider a 'young' conductor. After all, if I go along with the trend of conductors livng a long time, I have many happy years ahead of me. It's a strange concept — expecting conductors to be old. We think nothing of accepting instrumentalists 7 or 8 years old playing full-blown concertos with an orchestra, but then think a conductor must be at least 40."

"The bottom line is — does the person know what he's doing up there? It can get pretty frustrating when you've worked your whole life perfecting your instrument and then someone who doesn't know what he's doing gets up there to conduct."

When Litton first stood in front of his British ensemble, he not only had to prove his musical skill, but communicate his ideas in what can sometimes still seem like a foreign language.

"I might say something in rehearsal that comes out meaning something very different in British Engish; that can be funny. They find our figures of speech quite entertaining. But after seven years with them, I'm pretty bilingual now."

The conductor doesn't plan to sever ties with Bournemouth after he takes up the Dallas post; his association with the English musicians has been too enjoyable to walk away from.

"I think I'm proudest of the way that everyone still thinks of the orchestra as on the up-swing; we are constantly being praised as 'ever-improving.' That's all you can ask for, really. It's like having your own kid praised — but the orchestra would probably resent that analogy."

Impressive Recordings
Litton takes pride as well in a complete cycle of Tchaikovsky symphonies recorded on the Virgin Classics label. The last installment will be released early this year.

"I'm very pleased with the Manfred [Symphony]. That is such an enigmatic piece, and I feel we say something strongly about it in our performance."

Among his other noted recordings is a Gershwin collection on the MCA label featuring the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, with Litton as the piano soloist. A flair for the keyboard is yet another of his talents; in 1979, he was a winner of the William Kapell Piano Competition and made his Carnegie Hall debut.

"I started playing the piano at age five, but from age ten, I wanted to be a conductor. I'm definitely a conductor who plays the piano, not a pianist who conducts."

Although he has no interest in a separate, solo piano career, Litton does enjoy playing chamber music. He has plans to do a lot of it with Dallas Symphony musicians.

"I love the collaborative aspect of chamber music. My fundamental thesis is that orchestral music is really glorified chamber music; we've got to listen to each other in the orchestra, just as chamber players listen to each other. That's what makes an orchestra flexible."

Openness to scholarship
What can help make a conductor flexible is openness to the latest developments in musical scholarship. Litton welcomes them.

"The fabulous thing about growing up in the last few decades is that there has been so much research on authentic scores. We have to use all the knowledge we now have about what composers intended. You have to pore over all this material before coming up with your own interpretation. In the end, you have to be true to yourself and what you feel the composer has written. I have to believe in what I'm doing, or no one else will."

As for the practice of performing on original instruments in an attempt to get back to the past, Litton keeps an open mind.

"I think it's a great time to be in this business. The old world and the new world are playing off each other. Roger Norrington [leader of the London Classical Players, a much-recorded authentic instrument ensemble] is someone I respect a lot. But sometimes, he will take a crescendo on a certain note, something not in the score, and I'll think, why is this happening?

"Fifty years from now, we may think Norrington is as wierd as we think of [legendary German conductor Wilhelm] Furtwangler today. But I love Furtwangler's approach, too. I hope that I can bring the inner light and color in a Furtwangler performance to my music-making. That amazing inner life is so hard to come by these days."

Connection to opera
One thing Litton already has in common with Furtwangler, and other celebrated maestros of distant eras, is a strong connection to the opera world. It's a connection many symphonic conductors today lack.

"My entire early music education was in the opera pit. The was no one musical in my family, but my godfather was the principal timpanist in the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra. He got hold of me when I was ten, and said, 'Okay, you want to be a conductor? You're coming to rehearsals and performances.' And I sat in the pit at the Met three or four times a week. That lasted until 1976 when the management decided there were more people in the pit not playing than were playing and stopped it.

"It was an amazing education. Opera was drilled into my bones. If I could have been a singer, I would have been singing opera, but I have the worst voice known to mankind. I'm managing to conduct two or three operas a year in my spare time, which is an ideal situation for me. I'm having the time of my life."

Originally printed in the South Florida Sun-Sentinal on January 3, 1993. Copyright © 1993 Sun-Sentinel Co. 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