Conduct So Becoming

by Edward Greenfield

Edward Greenfield profiles Andrew Litton who soon takes over as Principal Conductor of the Bournemouth SO

Conducting, says Andrew Litton " so much more than the physical act of carving in the air." The main lesson he picked up from a series of distinguished conducting teachers, not to mention the maestros whose rehearsals he attended from boyhood onwards, was not so much a question of technique as learning the many different ways of communicating with the players of an orchestra.

For a young conductor to put his ideas over to a group of hardened, cynical musicians is a problem he has thought about and analysed from the start. On rare occasions it can be like a love affair, as it was for him, when just four years ago he first conducted the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra. He felt they had fun together and after three visits to Bournemouth he was appointed Principal Guest Conductor. From next September he will be the orchestra's Principal Conductor and Artistic Advisor; at 28 still very young for the job.

He loves the do-or-diefeeling in the Bournemouth Orchestra, confident that he "can work miracles with an orchestra like that." Since winning the BBC Rupert Foundation Award in 1982 (the youngest winner ever) he has conducted many times on the South Bank; next Friday's Festival Hall concert of Berlioz, Nielsen (the Violin Concerto with Cho-Laing Lin and Rachmaninov will be his first Bournemouth Orchestra concert in London.

Though born, raised and educated in central Manhattan (where his parents still live), Litton's conducting career took off in [England]. He claims that when he won the Rupert Award he was "as green as a one-dollar bill." His first full symphony concert was with the BBC Symphony Orchestra, part of his prize.

Two much-praised concerts with the Royal Philharmonic followed very soon after, both included works of Elgar which — learning at high speed — he knew at once how to interpret warmly and idiomatically in a way rare for non-British conductors.

At the second of those RPO concerts, he was taking over at 24 hours notice. He kept the Enigma Variations in the programme, though he barely knew the piece beforehand. He regarded it as an extra challenge to do that. His day of preparation beforehand included — not before a thorough study of the score — listening to all the current Enigma recordings.

He feels it is valuable to use everything that everyone has done before you, to assimilate the best and not to make the same mistakes. "You make your own mistakes, but there is no way to really grow and continue without examining what has already been done. That's why I believe in recordings."

His own recording career has centered on this country. Having made a series of recordings for EMI's best-selling Eminence label, and one or two for ASV, he has now signed exclusively for the new Virgin Classics label. The first ten Virgin issues, due for release on April 11 (1988), include Litton doing Mahler with the RPO, an extraordinarily generous coupling of the First Symphony with the Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen with Ann Murray as soloist.

With the Bournemouth Orchestra he is now set to record a complete cycle of Tchaikovsky symphonies for Virgin, starting, if he has his way, not with the most popular but the most tricky, the Polish, No. 3.

That is the sort of challenge he welcomes, but he is far from being a typical brash New Yorker. He claims that as a child he was painfully shy, unable to face anyone. His parents were tipped off by his kindergarten teacher when he was six that he was musical and would benefit from piano lessons.

To his own surprise, he enjoyed his piano lessons, though like most children, loathed practising. More than anything, they helped him get rid of his shyness. From there he went to Leonard Bernstein's children's concerts at the Lincoln Center and the great road-to-Damascus breakthrough came in the second season. He vividly remembers the day when Respighi's Pines of Rome was in the programme, with Bernstein preparing the way with a talk, slides and an old-fashioned gramophone for the nightingale passage, and then in the performance, leaping up and down as the music got more and more exciting.

When Litton got home, he asked for a record of the piece. From then on, he spent hours playing it, similarly jumping up and down in front of the mirror. His ambition to be a conductor was firmly established.

The other major development came when a friend of the family, a timpanist in the orchestra of the [Metropolitan Opera] suggested that Andrew might like to be in the orchestra pit during an opera performance. He loved it, and quickly graduated from Verdi and Puccini, to operas as taxing as Strauss's Die Frau ohn Schatten.

That was conducted by Karl Bohm, and Litton found himself moved that so old a man could inspire music-making of such intensity. He was fascinated from the start by the different ways that conductors would communicate as he watched them from the players' point of view.

He started analysing the differences in the resulting performances and his fascination with becoming a conductor obsessed him the more. He had his own ideas on how to get an orchestra playing well and they developed over his years at high school and the Julliard School, where he studied conducting with Walter Weller and Sixten Ehrling.

Just as important to him in his Washington years was being able to observe and discuss music with Rostropovich. By his third year, Litton was already feeling that he could do better than some of the [guest conductors].

From now on, he will be spending 15 weeks a year with the Bournemouth Orchestra conducting forty concerts each season, quite apart from the records he will be making for Virgin. Among the London orchestras, he will be conducting the RPO exclusively. Already he has taken the RPO on tour, standing in for Andre Previn.

Last year, Litton conducted the USSR Symphony Orchestra in the first really complete performance of Rachmaninov's Second Symphony they had given for 25 years. He was helped over the language barrier by taking his father, a fluent Russian-speaker.

Next year, his engagements include concerts with the Philadelphia Orchestra, and he will spend three months working at the Met in New York

For Litton, it is one of his sweetest triumphs yet, though he certainly doesn't underestimate the problems ahead. Maybe some of the players will remember the little lad who not so long ago used to take up his position by the timpanist.

Originally printed in The Guardian, UK, on February 26, 1988.
Copyright © 1988 The Guardian. All rights reserved.