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-PianoCompetition, 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.