The Young One

by Tim Smith, music writer

An American conductor has been making waves in the music world. Now he's set for a splash in South Florida

When the Florida Philharmonic booked Andrew Litton to lead its first concerts of 1993, no one could have known that the young conductor's stock would be rising so much higher right now. On December 10, the Dallas Symphony Orchestra announced Litton's appointment as music director, effective June 1994.

For a major American orchestra to choose an American conductor is newsworthy in itself; most ensembles in this country continue to seek foreign talents. But it was probably only a matter of time before Litton was tapped for such a post. Since 1982, when he won an international conducting competition while still a Juilliard student, he has been making musical waves.

After completing his studies, he served as an assistant conductor in one of the world's greatest opera houses, Milan's La Scala. Next came a distinguished stint as assistant and then associate conductor of the National Symphony Orchestra in Washington, D.C.

In 1986, he caught the attention of the much-respected, nearly century-old Bournemouth Symphony in England. He started that year as a principal guest conductor. Two years later, at the ripe age of 29, he became the orchestra's principal conductor and artistic advisor, the first American to have those titles. In short order, he was credited with rejuvenating the British ensemble, which has won increasing acclaim, both for its concerts and its recordings.

Along the way have been conducting debuts for Litton at the Metropolitan Opera and London's Covent Garden; this season he led the first American work ever given in the latter — Gershwin's Porgy and Bess — to ecstatic reviews. He also has guest conducted the Chicago Symphony, Philadelphia Orchestra and the Los Angeles Philharmonic, among many others.

Part of Litton's success may be traced to his personality — affable, unpretentious, optimistic. And then there is the matter of talent. He has that in abundance.

The conductor discussed his career and musical views during a recent phone interview.

"I always secretly hoped for an American post," he said. "It is very nice to receive this honor [the Dallas appointment]. Perhaps it will start a trend of American orchestras hiring American conductors. I don't think there has been anything outwardly plotted to keep Americans out of top posts here; it just tends to happen.

"Orchestra players like the sense of the Austro-German tradition, so they often look conductors from those countries. It's easy to lost sight of the fact that American musicians are probably the most well-rounded and flexible in the world."

Well-roundedness and flexibility have contributed to Litton's popularity with the Bournemouth musicians — and audiences. And those attributes have clearly offset any reservations about his relative youthfulness.

"It's very exciting to be what people consider a 'young' conductor. After all, if I go along with the trend of conductors livng a long time, I have many happy years ahead of me. It's a strange concept — expecting conductors to be old. We think nothing of accepting instrumentalists 7 or 8 years old playing full-blown concertos with an orchestra, but then think a conductor must be at least 40."

"The bottom line is — does the person know what he's doing up there? It can get pretty frustrating when you've worked your whole life perfecting your instrument and then someone who doesn't know what he's doing gets up there to conduct."

When Litton first stood in front of his British ensemble, he not only had to prove his musical skill, but communicate his ideas in what can sometimes still seem like a foreign language.

"I might say something in rehearsal that comes out meaning something very different in British Engish; that can be funny. They find our figures of speech quite entertaining. But after seven years with them, I'm pretty bilingual now."

The conductor doesn't plan to sever ties with Bournemouth after he takes up the Dallas post; his association with the English musicians has been too enjoyable to walk away from.

"I think I'm proudest of the way that everyone still thinks of the orchestra as on the up-swing; we are constantly being praised as 'ever-improving.' That's all you can ask for, really. It's like having your own kid praised — but the orchestra would probably resent that analogy."

Impressive Recordings
Litton takes pride as well in a complete cycle of Tchaikovsky symphonies recorded on the Virgin Classics label. The last installment will be released early this year.

"I'm very pleased with the Manfred [Symphony]. That is such an enigmatic piece, and I feel we say something strongly about it in our performance."

Among his other noted recordings is a Gershwin collection on the MCA label featuring the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, with Litton as the piano soloist. A flair for the keyboard is yet another of his talents; in 1979, he was a winner of the William Kapell Piano Competition and made his Carnegie Hall debut.

"I started playing the piano at age five, but from age ten, I wanted to be a conductor. I'm definitely a conductor who plays the piano, not a pianist who conducts."

Although he has no interest in a separate, solo piano career, Litton does enjoy playing chamber music. He has plans to do a lot of it with Dallas Symphony musicians.

"I love the collaborative aspect of chamber music. My fundamental thesis is that orchestral music is really glorified chamber music; we've got to listen to each other in the orchestra, just as chamber players listen to each other. That's what makes an orchestra flexible."

Openness to scholarship
What can help make a conductor flexible is openness to the latest developments in musical scholarship. Litton welcomes them.

"The fabulous thing about growing up in the last few decades is that there has been so much research on authentic scores. We have to use all the knowledge we now have about what composers intended. You have to pore over all this material before coming up with your own interpretation. In the end, you have to be true to yourself and what you feel the composer has written. I have to believe in what I'm doing, or no one else will."

As for the practice of performing on original instruments in an attempt to get back to the past, Litton keeps an open mind.

"I think it's a great time to be in this business. The old world and the new world are playing off each other. Roger Norrington [leader of the London Classical Players, a much-recorded authentic instrument ensemble] is someone I respect a lot. But sometimes, he will take a crescendo on a certain note, something not in the score, and I'll think, why is this happening?

"Fifty years from now, we may think Norrington is as wierd as we think of [legendary German conductor Wilhelm] Furtwangler today. But I love Furtwangler's approach, too. I hope that I can bring the inner light and color in a Furtwangler performance to my music-making. That amazing inner life is so hard to come by these days."

Connection to opera
One thing Litton already has in common with Furtwangler, and other celebrated maestros of distant eras, is a strong connection to the opera world. It's a connection many symphonic conductors today lack.

"My entire early music education was in the opera pit. The was no one musical in my family, but my godfather was the principal timpanist in the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra. He got hold of me when I was ten, and said, 'Okay, you want to be a conductor? You're coming to rehearsals and performances.' And I sat in the pit at the Met three or four times a week. That lasted until 1976 when the management decided there were more people in the pit not playing than were playing and stopped it.

"It was an amazing education. Opera was drilled into my bones. If I could have been a singer, I would have been singing opera, but I have the worst voice known to mankind. I'm managing to conduct two or three operas a year in my spare time, which is an ideal situation for me. I'm having the time of my life."

Originally printed in the South Florida Sun-Sentinal on January 3, 1993. Copyright © 1993 Sun-Sentinel Co. All rights reserved.