Music That Changed Me

An interview with BBC Music’s Helen Wallace

Andrew Litton, born in New York in 1959, was assistant to Mstislav Rostropovich at the National Symphony Orchestra and the principal conductor at the Bournemouth and Dallas Symphony Orchestras, before becoming music director of the Bergen Philharmonic in Norway. He has made over 80 recordings, including Mendelssohn Symphonies Nos. 1 and 4, named Disc of the Month in our February issue. In March he tours the UK with the Bergen PO: The Sage, Gateshead (22,23), Derby Concert Hall (24) and Cadogan Hall (25).

I was fortunate to grow up in New York with parents who loved music. I’m just old enough to have experienced Vladimir Horowitz’s return to performance and the playing of Arthur Rubenstein. I started learning piano just before my sixth birthday and loved it. The big moment came when I started attending Leonard Bernstein’s televised concerts for young people when I was about nine. He was a pivotal figure for me, although I never knew him personally. He conducted Respighi’s Pines of Rome: it was so visceral, so colorful and descriptive, and he was his usual animated self. I came out of that concert and said to my mother, ‘I want to be a conductor!’.

My godfather was Richard Horowitz, who had been principal timpanist at the Met since 1946. When my mother told him of my intentions, he said ‘I’ll take care of that’ – and from that point on, three or four times a week, I sat with him in the pit at the Met, watching everything. It was the most wonderful exposure to music making. I could watch the singers, and it was fascinating to me how different musicians could sound depending on the conductor.

In the 1972-72 season, Bernstein conducted Bizet’s Carmen, and I cut school and went to all the rehersals and five of the performances. That felt like my production of Carmen and when the LP came out, it was mine! A year or two later, PBS started broadcasting Bernstein’s cycle of the Mahler symphonies. I taped Mahler Four and I fell in love with the composer: my first encounter.

Jumping backwards, when I was eight I was given my first opera recording, the first Maria Callas, Giuseppe di Stefano, Tito Gobbi recording of Puccini’s Tosca conducted by Victor de Sabata. I couldn’t stop listening to it, it sizzled from the first note on.

Much later on, in 1983, one of the first CDs to be released was the 60-song set of the George & Ira Gershwin Song Book, with Ella Fitzgerald. I listened to nothing else for months – they are such beautiful arrangements and Fitzgerals sings with such amazingly innate and gorgeous phrasing. As Ira once sald ‘I never knew how good our songs were until Ella sang them’. Her interpretaions are definite, up there with a Fischer-Dieskau Witerreise. Her naturalness inspires me, it’s what I try to hold on to.

I had wonderful teachers at the Juilliard School, but the real test came when I auditioned for Mstislav Rostropovich at the National Symphony Orchestra. This was the ultimate finishing school. He was the last great influence on me, an incredible inspiration, as a musician and a force of nature. I’d see him in the shadows at my concerts and as soon as they were over, he was right at my elbow citing chapter and verse on what I’d done wrong – or occasionally – right. People criticised his technique as a conductor, but Slava knew what a great conductor looked like. He was a brilliant and generous teacher, I think because he had been a real student himself – of people like Shostakovich and Prokofiev. Slava’s take-no-prisonersattitude to music making worked well in the Shostakovich symphonies: here was a man who wanted no one to be standing at the end. And that rubbed off on me. He came to Bournemouth in our centenary season, and played the Dvořák Concerto. he was the most difficult soloist I’ve ever worked with – he was in charge. At first, he was ready to lay into me, but when he came off stage he said ‘Andrushka, you are a real conductor now’ – that was 11 years after I was his assistant. His playing always spoke to your innermost being. To witness this at such chose hand – what a privilege.

Read the entire article in the March 2010 issue of BBC Music Magazine.

This interview was first printed in the March 2010 issue of BBC Music Magazine. Copyright © 2010 BBC Music Magazine. All rights reserved.