How the Norse code was cracked; Andrew Litton tells Ivan Hewett about achieving his goal of putting the Bergen Philharmonic on the musical map

Ivan Hewett, The Daily Telegraph

Andrew Litton’s first encounter with Bergen and its orchestra is emblazoned on his memory. “I was booked to do a guest gig in 1998,” he says. “It was raining, it was pitch black, and I remember thinking, ’Why have I come to this little place no one’s ever heard of, right at the edge of the world? Has my career gotten so bad?’”

Things could only get better. “Next morning it was brilliant sunshine, and I was knocked out at how beautiful the mountains were. Then about 10 minutes into the rehearsal, I could feel the power of the lower strings, and I thought, ’Wow, this orchestra is really something.’”

By that time Litton was already a well-travelled and much admired conductor. In the late Eighties and early Nineties he was a familiar figure on the British scene, as principal conductor of the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra. As music director of the Dallas Symphony Orchestra he raised the orchestra’s profile enormously, and in recent years has made some terrific recordings with them (including a complete set of Rachmaninov piano concertos with Stephen Hough).

Even so, it was no surprise that he’d barely heard of the Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra. The orchestra’s invisibility was bound up with the city’s, which for centuries barely registered on the world’s consciousness. At bottom it’s a humble fishing port, cut off in all directions by sea or mountains, and it’s tiny – you can cross the centre on foot in 20 minutes. The place is so wholesomely picturesque, with its clapboard houses strung in gaily painted blues and pinks up the sheer green mountainsides, it’s hard to take seriously.

Now Bergen is a boomtown, getting rich on natural gas and tourism. And the musical world has been waking up to the fact that one of Europe’s finest orchestras lives here, and also one of its oldest.

It’s now in its 248th season, which makes it more than twice as old as its rival in Oslo, as everyone likes to remind you. The arrival of Bergen on the scene is partly due to the general transformation of Norway from an impoverished, far-flung corner of Scandinavia to an economic powerhouse, which by some measures is the richest nation on earth.

But it has even more to do with the restlessly energetic, rotund American seated with me at the orchestra’s concert hall, the Grieghallen. After that rainy arrival, other guest dates soon followed, and in 2003 the orchestra asked him to take on the role of chief conductor.

“The deal was, they wanted me to put the orchestra on the map. Which meant getting busier on every front: more recordings, more touring, and also new areas of music they weren’t so familiar with here.”

In terms of “new areas,” the good burghers of Bergen have certainly had their ears pinned back. The day I’m there Litton and the orchestra are due to play an exuberantly noisy double concerto by Israeli composer Avner Dorman, for star Austrian percussionist Martin Grubinger and the orchestra’s own percussionist. And when I arrive at the Grieghallen, Litton is actually seated at the piano in the lobby, working on some tricky passages in a jazz number by Oscar Peterson.

Was there a moment when he might have become a jazz pianist? “Oh, not at all. It’s true I love the Great American Songbook, and I was a total fanatic for Broadway shows. But my main loyalties were always to classical music.”

“My godfather was a timpanist in the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra for 66 years, and as a kid I would sit with him night after night in the pit, craning my neck to see all those great singers on stage.”

Coming to the high-spending, social democratic Norwegian arts scene must have been quite a culture shock after the staunchly free-market approach of the orchestra in Dallas. “Well, it’s certainly been a relief to my waistline, not having to go to all those fund-raising dinners!” he says. “We get a huge amount of state support here; it accounts for more than 80 per cent of our budget. And that does mean we can be more adventurous in our programming.”

Are their frustrations as well as benefits? “Well, to an American there is something deeply weird about the government appointing the orchestra’s board. In America that would be unconstitutional.”

But Litton isn’t a political animal. He’s much happier enthusing about the orchestra’s musical qualities. “My aim has always been to create an orchestra that can play any kind of music without a foreign accent. It’s all about having a musical and cultural flexibility.”

Hearing the orchestra now, any listener would agree Litton has delivered handsomely on that deal struck 10 years ago. Bergen is now definitely on the map.

The Bergen Philharmonic’s tour begins in Edinburgh on Jan 31 and continues to Gateshead, Leeds, Warwick, Basingstoke, Manchester and Southend. For the complete tour schedule, visit check the Engagements Calendar on this website.

Courtesy of Telegraph Media Group Ltd.