Colorado Symphony trades busy offseason for big Beethoven opener

by Ray Mark Rinaldi, The Denver Post

Andrew Litton is worked up. High on Beethoven. Down about dress codes. Focused on the future. As his Colorado Symphony Orchestra starts its 2014-15 season this weekend, he’s got much in his mind and, in typical, Andrew Litton style, he is happy to talk about it.

Litton is a talented conductor, a music historian who can discuss free American jazz as smoothly as structured European classical, an easy leader of men and women with high levels of skills.

But the secret to his social success is his frankness. He’s accomplished enough on the podium that he speaks his mind about the politics of orchestra life without worrying about conveying the institutional message. Get the gab out of the way and you can concentrate on Tchaikovsky and Rachmaninov.

He is “less than thrilled,” he says, about the CSO’s decision this season to have the male musicians dress in black suits, rather than the formal tuxedos they have worn on stage for eight decades. Nobody asked him about it, he said.

“People have jobs where they wear uniforms and this is ours,” he said in phone interview last week. “But this is what they decided to do and I’ll go along with it.”

As for the orchestra’s recent partnership with the cannabis industry, headlining news-making events where patrons were openly invited to smoke marijuana as the musicians performed, he is neutral.

He wasn’t in town for the concerts, so he did not take part. Just as well, he says, pot isn’t his thing. But he understands CSO boss Jerry Kern is under pressure to raise funds and the money from the three-concert series helped to pay the bills.

“If Jerry Kern got a series sponsorship from Bombay or Tanqueray gin, I’d pose nude for it,” he said. “It’s just a question of what you believe in.”

What Litton believes in are the musicians. He is doing everything he can to raise the profile of the Colorado Symphony Orchestra internationally. He has the ensemble recording as much as possible, including an upcoming session at Boettcher Concert Hall, where they will record music of Aaron Copland for BIS, a major, independent label based in Sweden.

The orchestra will also record a demonstration session for a microphone company at Boettcher this fall. “As problematic as Boettcher is acoustically for performers on stage, microphones love it,’ he said.

Good recordings are important. They are a way for orchestras to hear what they sound like, improve their game. They are also a crucial tool for a music director who guest conducts with ensembles around the world and who touts the skills of his home team to every media outlet that will listen.

“Nobody believes you. Of course, you’re gong to say your orchestra is great,” said Litton. “But when you’ve got the proof, that’s really something.”

Litton, who lives in New York state, is only in Denver when he conducting for the most part, about six times a year. But three seasons in as the CSO’s main musical force, he is gaining control of things. He’s been more present for meet-and-greets and funders during his visits and is deepening his relationship with the players.

He’s also been able to influence the CSO management team, bringing in Bob Neu, the longtime general manager of the Minnesota Orchestra to assist the CSO’s Anthony Pierce on programming. Litton conducts Minnesota’s summer season each year and the two know each other well. “Artistically, we are on such solid ground now. I’m really excited.’

It’s all about setting the scene for big performances and the CSO has one with its all-Beethoven season opener. The concert starts with the large “Choral Fantasy for Piano, Chorus and Orchestra” and moves naturally to the grand Symphony No. 9.

Colorful, as always, Litton describes number nine as “a Mount Everest piece.”

“You’re standing on the bottom, looking up at this thing thinking ’Can I really make it up to the top?’”

The whole team climbs, the strings, the woodwinds, the percussion, the piano, the soloists and the mammoth chorus, they reach the peak with the inspirational ‘Ode to Joy,” perhaps the best-known series of vocal notes Beethoven ever composed.

It’s a momentous musical experience, especially for the audience, and with the ensemble’s leader in front and director Duain Wolfe’s Colorado Symphony Orchestra Chorus on the risers behind, it will likely be a highlight of the season.

Courtesy of The Denver Post, September 2014