New Colorado Symphony Orchestra conductor Andrew Litton is a modern maestro
By Ray Mark Rinaldi, The Denver Post
If Denver loved classical music the way it loves football, Andrew Litton would be the next Peyton Manning.
Both men are leaders in their field, national figures brought in to pump up playing on the home team. Each brings a considerable fan base.
Of course, the Colorado Symphony Orchestra’s new artistic leader doesn’t have quite the superstar status of the Broncos quarterback, and he doesn’t get the salary. He is given, however, to the occasional sports metaphor.
“For a long time, Denver has played over its weight class,” said Litton. “We’re better than our reputation.”
Reputation is something Litton, 52, knows about. He is of a generation of conductors whose living depends on how talented the world perceives them to be. And Litton has worked himself into a small and elite circle. His 2013 schedule will have him before 13 different ensembles in 20 cities, including London; Tokyo; Brussels; Edinburgh, Scotland; and Bucharest, Romania.
Like the CSO’s two previous chief conductors, Marin Alsop and Jeffrey Kahane, he is an American, a New Yorker. But unlike them, he will remain a citizen of the world. He’ll come to Denver for just six programs next season — about 18 concerts total — with an orchestra that might offer 100 performances a year.
While his predecessors made Colorado their home and took the traditional title of “music director,” Litton is technically “artistic adviser,” a term coined to reflect the idea that today’s classical professionals, like football players, couldn’t necessarily give you directions or recommend a restaurant in the city they serve.
That’s not to say they can’t lead you to a winning season — and Litton is in a position to take the orchestra to new places. He’ll program the CSO’s main musical lineup, and he’ll do the hiring, sitting in on every audition, maybe the most important job for an orchestra that wants to continuously improve and have the world hear about it.
That’s enough to have him talking about the ensemble like it’s his own, and in some ways it already is, even though his first official season doesn’t start until September. Litton, an occasional guest conductor in Denver, was chosen in June after a four-year search, and he was picked because the musicians voted overwhelmingly to follow his vision.
“I find him very interesting to work with,” said CSO player Justin Bartels. “He commanded respect right from the beginning, and that’s what we need at the Colorado Symphony.”
Bartels is principal trumpet player, not the busiest musician in an art form that hands all the good lines to the strings. It’s natural he would appreciate Litton, a guy who "loves the theater of the big stuff" — the power pieces that lean on the full orchestra to make a beautiful noise. Litton conducts one here this weekend with Mahler’s Symphony No. 6.
The good thing for the CSO’s management, which has battled income issues, is that audiences like sweep too. The recently announced 2013-14 season is rife with big Beethovens and Brahmses — and that could mean more ticket sales.
“He’s a powerful force; he really is,” said CSO board chairman Jerome Kern, the former cable-TV executive who runs the orchestra’s operations. “We intend to use him much more than we currently do.”
Andrew Litton was raised on classical music. The Littons had season tickets to the Metropolitan Opera, and when he wasn’t sitting in those seats — front row — he was hanging in the pit, tucked under family friend Richard Horowitz, a longtime timpanist in the Met orchestra.
Piano lessons started at age 5. He pronounced himself a conductor at 10, after watching Leonard Bernstein lead Respighi’s symphonic poem “Pines of Rome” at one of the New York Philharmonic’s legendary Young People’s Concerts. He went to Juilliard.
Music comes to him naturally, casually. During rehearsals, he is measure-by-measure clear with demands about tempo and volume, in charge but without the high-strung urgency of some conductors. At performances, he is focused but loose, and taken to tiny hops that shake the long tails of his tuxedo.
In person, he is at ease, inclusive, respectful. He tells his life story efficiently, 10 minutes max. He lines out his goals energetically, maybe 15 minutes. He has big, dark eyes, a round head and a generous smile.
He has been doing this — musicians, media, the music itself — for 25 years, and he gets business done with charm and crack. That is what it takes in a job where you jet in, win them over and jet on.
Litton is grateful for every second of it. He has made peace, he said, with the sacrifices of a career that keeps him away from his wife (Jayne, who is British and a violinist) and his children (Rachel, 17, Michael, 13) most of the year. Andrew Litton tells very good horror stories about plane travel.
“I enjoy my work. It’s real, and it’s what I live for,” he said. “That helps offset all of the hassle and all the loneliness.”
He holds four significant titles, most notably music director of Norway’s Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra, where he has been since 2003 and succeeded vastly, touring Europe. Norway’s King Harald knighted him into the Royal Order of Merit.
But he’s also artistic director of the Minnesota Orchestra’s Sommerfest and conductor Laureate of Britain’s Bournemouth Symphony — all that in addition to numerous guest appearances.
Does that leave him enough time and energy to make the Mile High City more than just another airport stop? Will he be around for auditions and have enough presence to connect with donors, audiences and players?
That is how his work here will be judged, observers say.
“None of it’s worth doing if the music isn’t gorgeous,” said industry-watcher D. Kern Holoman, who teaches music at the University of California at Davis and recently published the handy and authoritative tome The Orchestra: A Very Short Introduction.
“The conductor needs to click with the public and the patrons, of course, but what matters is the intrinsic beauty of the result, week in and week out.”
It’s not an ideal situation, Holoman suggests, but regional orchestras, lacking the cash and clout they once had, must make peace with sharing top talent.
“Times have changed, and creative solutions are the order of the day,” Holoman said. “I’m willing to believe this is one.”
The CSO gig is Litton’s first leadership position with an American orchestra since his 12-year engagement, from 1994 to 2006, as music director of the Dallas Symphony Orchestra, one of the country’s most respected ensembles.
It wasn’t always easygoing for him there. There were huge successes, Dallas’ national presence jumped under his baton, and the ensemble toured extensively. At the dawn of a troubled age for classical music, the orchestra’s endowment skyrocketed, from $19 million to $100 million.
But a dozen years is a long tenure for a conductor in the U.S. — and things deteriorated. Football players have sports columnists and impatient fans to contend with, and conductors have music critics, moody subscribers, finicky donors.
“As time wore on, musicians, local cognoscenti and critics grumbled about a lack of depth,” wrote Dallas Morning News critic Scot Cantrell, analyzing Litton’s departure back then. But he noted that Dallas released a considerable 23 recordings and played four Carnegie Hall dates.
Litton has certainly answered much of the criticism with his success in Europe. The Web is full of raves, especially for his work with Bergen. Of that orchestra’s 2007 Carnegie Hall performance of Shosta-kovich’s Fifth Symphony, New York Times critic Allan Kozinn wrote: “Mr. Litton’s reading had the virtues of supremely polished surfaces with raw, often savage emotion swirling just beneath them.”
Still, Litton appears eager to score once again as the leader of a U.S. operation. He has nothing to prove, but the idea of taking on an orchestra such as Denver’s — well-regarded but not top tier — is "kind of an aphrodisiac" to him. If the CSO moves up in the unofficial classical rankings, both city and savior win.
“I do need Denver,” he said. ”It holds the possibility to make a difference.”
He is certain. “It will pay such dividends if it works.”
Litton knows how to get there. The classical-music business has changed since his Dallas days. Now, orchestras live-stream performances and sell their music on iTunes.
But the sort of success the symphony here craves — international respect, which means higher ticket sales, attracting better musicians — still depends on the same factors.
The orchestra must record for a respected label. It must hit the road to win fame. These things are Litton’s specialty.
“Reality and perception are really quite different,” he said. “But they must go in tandem.”
It won’t be easy. The CSO has financial challenges. A year ago, it had a deficit of $1.3 million. The books are balanced now, box office is up, and so are donations. But board chair Kern wants to make it clear that the CSO isn’t out of the woods. If it doesn’t get donations, it’ll sink again.
Plus, it takes money to bring in well-regarded soloists, pay musicians a decent wage and travel.
Litton has a recipe for success there too, and it’s not complicated. He’s going to make the playing here better, he said.
To that end, he plans to up the number of rehearsals, to five per program, rather than four, no small matter when players are paid by the session. It will be, he acknowledges, a journey for the organization, but also a very exciting time for Denver audiences. Everyone at the CSO — the musicians, the conductor, the board — wants to prove something.
Not so surprisingly, subscription sales for 2013-14 are outpacing the year before. Reputation is already making a difference.
“If you don’t have enough rehearsals, you can’t get the details down, and details are how you build a great orchestra,” Litton said.
Courtesy of The Denver Post