Waltzing into Sommerfest

Artistic director Andrew Litton seeks to make the music festival "fun"

by Michael Anthony, Star Tribune

If there's a single thread running through the 26 years of the Minnesota Orchestra's Sommerfest, it's the Viennese waltz, that evocation in three-quarter time of the high-spirited life and dancing till you drop.

It makes sense, then, that festival artistic director Andrew Litton's first concert here will be a "Strauss Waltz Spectacular," a mix of the familiar ("Wine, Women and Song") with lesser-known Strauss, such as "The Morning Papers Waltz," thought to be the first composition devoted to tabloid journalism.

After Saturday, Litton moves into high gear, serving in some programs as pianist — playing Brahms, for instance, with music director Osmo Vänskä in Sunday's chamber-music concert — appearing at other times as conductor in the all-Russian program of July 29 or the semi-staged version of Bizet's "Carmen," the festival's August 5 finale.

Litton starts his fourth season this weekend at the festival's helm. Attendance last summer was up 23 percent from the prior year; even the chamber-music concerts, normally the most sparsely attended of the Sommerfest events (though often the most interestingly programmed), rose to an average per-concertattendance of 800 from an average of 340 the year before.

Litton appears to have reached a truce in his battles with the orchestra's marketing department over matters of programming. He managed, for instance, despite the extra expense, to get the "Carmen" he wanted this year. Asked to characterize the spirit of Sommerfest, he said "Hey, this is summer. Let's have fun."

Right time, right decision
So far, though, the big event of the year for the 47-year-oldconductor came in May: his departure after 12 years as music director of the Dallas Symphony. There were farewell concerts, along with what Litton called "nonstop goodbye parties" and a flock of gifts, among which – a gift from several well-heeled board members – was an Andy Warhol lithograph of George Gershwin, whose music has played a large part in this conductor's career. Leaving Dallas, where he will remain a conductor-laureate, was bittersweet, he said.

"Still, it was the right time and the right decision. Twelve years is high by national averages for music directorships. The average is eight or nine. Three more years, and who knows? It might have been, 'Thank goodness he's leaving.'"

Asked why the era of long terms for music directors, like that of Eugene Ormandy and the Philadelphia Orchestra, seems to be over, Litton pointed to the much-discussed current battle at the Seattle Symphony, where some musicians have protested the renewal of music director Gerard Schwartz's contract.

"I think people are more impatient to have change these days," Litton said. "And conductors get restless too. They want to experience other things. I know, for me, just to have a short break from the fundraising and the personnel issues one has to deal with feels so good. Boards, on the other hand, like to keep their conductors, partly because it's hard to find a replacement. They haven't found one for me yet, and they've been looking for more than two years. Whereas, in Minnesota, they hit the jackpot," he said, referring to Vänskä.

Litton, his wife and two children moved from Dallas to Westchester County just outside New York City, where he was born. He remains music director of the Bergen Symphony in Norway. The musicians there, as a group, asked him in April of last year to become their leader. He also intends to do more guest conducting than he has had time for in the past as well as addressing what he says has become a passion, conducting opera. He will conduct at the Deutsche Oper Berlin in 2009. And he isn't opposed to taking on another U.S. orchestra. "I would consider any job where I felt I had something to give to the orchestra but, mostly, where the players of the orchestra want to work with me."

Litton speaks optimistically about Sommerfest, especially about the good business the festival did last summer. "Last summer was kind of a make-or-break situation," he said. "We didn't portray it that way because that's not what you'd call good PR. We had to prove that this was a viable festival, and we did. Hopefully, after a string of successful summers, it won't be the two departments, marketing and artistic, watching nervously what the other's doing. Right now, it's wonderfully collaborative."

At issue two years ago, though never officially announced, was Litton's idea to do the opera "Salome" and surround it with related events such as seminars. "I was sad to see that go," he said. "But at that time, the orchestra was in serious financial trouble, and that's passed. So maybe in a few years, I'll get to do my 'Salome.' It's a question now of building from where we've gotten to."

Originally printed in the Star Tribune, 21 July 2006.
Copyright © 2006 Star Tribune. All rights reserved.