The Conductor Andrew Litton, Finding a Different Tempo
By Michael Cooper, The New York Times
Midway through his first rehearsal as music director of the New York City Ballet Orchestra, the conductor Andrew Litton did something audacious. He asked the musicians to change how they played a score that they must hold some kind of record for performing: Tchaikovsky’s “The Nutcracker,” which they have presented dozens of times each year for decades.
“Sorry to be a pain,” Mr. Litton said at one point, as the ensemble traversed a score that had been rearranged in places by the choreographer George Balanchine, City Ballet’s co-founder and guiding spirit. “This is a bit like telling the Vienna Philharmonic how to play Strauss.”
At one point Mr. Litton, 56, who has conducted quite a bit of Tchaikovsky over the years, with symphony orchestras around the world, came up with a novel way to get the horn players to adjust their phrasing of the soaring “Waltz of the Flowers” melody. “I thought of great words in the shower this morning,” he told them, before bursting into song to show them the phrasing he was looking for: “My name is BA-lanchine; this is my ‘NUT-cracker’ BAL-let.”
The players laughed, but the melody came out as Mr. Litton wanted, and his first conducting assignment as the company’s music director drew favorable reviews. Now Mr. Litton is preparing for his next test: City Ballet is opening its winter season on Tuesday with a program he selected, called “Music Director’s Choice.” Mr. Litton went with three ballets he has conducted, sans dancers, in his career as a symphony conductor: “Barber Violin Concerto,” “Fancy Free” (with a Leonard Bernstein score) and “Who Cares?” (to Gershwin).
As he rehearsed for the winter season, he mused on all he has been learning while making the transition from symphony orchestra to ballet conductor: how to choose tempos that suit the dancers, how to burnish the playing with fewer rehearsals than many symphony or opera orchestras typically get, how to watch the dancers and be flexible enough to stay with them.
“As a professional conductor for 34 years, you get used to hearing issues before they happen,” he said in an interview at Lincoln Center, where City Ballet performs in the David H. Koch Theater. “But seeing them before they happen is a different discipline completely.”
It is a new set of challenges for Mr. Litton, a native New Yorker who is wrapping up his tenure as music director of the Colorado Symphony Orchestra and recently stepped down as music director of the Bergen Philharmonic in Norway. (He previously held the post at the Dallas Symphony.) But it is also a return to his roots: His first professional gig, while he was still studying at the Juilliard School, was as the onstage pianist for one of Rudolf Nureyev’s Broadway shows.
And when, as a young man, he dated a City Ballet dancer, Mr. Litton found himself watching the company nearly every night at what was then called the New York State Theater, experiencing for the first time many pieces that he later went on to play and record, including Ravel’s Piano Concerto in G and Gershwin’s Piano Concerto in F.
“I actually learned these pieces as a pianist because I experienced the works as ballets, which is crazy — totally the wrong way around,” he said, with a laugh. “The relationship went south, but my love of these pieces never did.”
Ballet orchestras do not always get the respect they feel they deserve in the classical music world, but Mr. Litton is determined to change that. He said that he was in talks with Bis, the respected Swedish label, about getting the orchestra back into the recording studio for the first time in years, and that he hoped to begin a concert series that would bring it out of the pit.
And he hopes to play a more active part in helping choreographers choose which composers to collaborate with — an important role in a company that has commissioned music from Stravinsky, Hindemith, Bernstein, Charles Wuorinen, John Adams, Bright Sheng, Esa-Pekka Salonen, David Lang and Nico Muhly, among others.
Mr. Litton has already hired some new players for the 62-member orchestra, including a principal trombonist and a violist, and will hold violin auditions soon. And he has rearranged where the musicians sit — reverting to a configuration that had not been used in recent years.
The new seating arrangement — which he settled on after listening with the rest of the music staff to the orchestra play “Swan Lake” in both configurations — splits the violins, so that the first violins sit on the conductor’s left and the second violins on his right, and moves the woodwinds to the middle of the pit. (Not all the players found it easy at first; at the first rehearsal, a wind player worried that in his new position, he could not hear over the others.)
“With this setup, there’s much more possibility for interaction between the players,” Mr. Litton said. “And the best way to get great ensemble is if people are playing off each other rather than relying on a stick, or their perception of a stick.”
Mr. Litton said that he would be conducting nine ballets this week, most for the first time. To prepare to lead Bizet’s “Symphony in C,” which he has conducted with orchestras in Britain, he attended a piano rehearsal with the company, with a Korg metronome on hand to help him gauge the proper tempos.
Peter Martins, the company’s ballet master in chief, explained that the piece would start with the curtain rising, and then the music would begin. “Curtain,” he said.
Mr. Litton gave the downbeat with a pencil, the rehearsal pianist began, and a slightly terrified-looking corps de ballet rushed out for a few moments before Mr. Martins and Rosemary Dunleavy, a ballet mistress, clapped their hands to stop the action.
“Where’s the fire?” Mr. Martins asked.
Mr. Litton raised his improvised baton again, the pianist began again — just a hair slower — and the dancers and music were in sync.