What's next for Andrew Litton?

by Mike Holbrook

The DSO's music director recently announced he will leave the symphony in 2006. But what will he do after leaving? The maestro hints at his future plans in this exclusive conversation withWRR Classical 101.1 FM Morning Show host Mike Holbrook.

Holbrook: At the end of the 2005-2006 season you've chosen to not renew your contract. But you want to pursue other interests. And I found it interesting that it would be opera conducting, which is your love — but the fact that you want to go into producing music programs for children: How did that come about?

Litton: Well, one of my proudest legacies in my tenure in Dallas and with the Dallas Symphony has been the four young people's concerts we produced [as television programs for A&E], called Amazing Music. I was so proud of those because I felt like it was good quality programming for young people, exposing them to this great art form that we know and love so much.

We never got the funding to make those shows, so after four we had to pull the plug on the project. But that's always been a source of frustration, and so when I was looking into the future and trying to decide what I wanted to do when I grew up, what to do with the next phase of my life, I really have felt this sense of frustration at the inability of us to continue those programs, and so I'd like to explore it. I'm now going to use the two years between now and then, to really explore the possibilities of perhaps starting my own production company and getting these things made.

I want to really perform this service for the kids of today and tomorrow, because I feel like we are truly shooting ourselves in the feet with not addressing these issues and by putting such garbage on the television to watch, which of course they're going to watch.

Holbrook: Leonard Bernstein had his great Joy of Music series, but looking at some of those previous productions, a lot of that wasn't geared toward children; a lot of it was technically oriented. What is the level you want to do this; what age group are you trying to reach? How would you plan on pulling this off and putting it across to a younger audience and making it more interesting?

Litton: Kids are interested in how things work and mechanics and all that, sort of what goes into making a violin sound; why a conductor needs a baton. These are questions kids have. When I go and talk in the schools these are the questions they ask me. So programs that are actually answering these questions always before they're posed I think would be very interesting to do; and I don't think you can talk down because it is a fascinating subject.

I remember a board member coming to me after one of our children's concerts that we did, back in 1995, one of the Amazing Musics, saying that he had no previous idea which instrument was an English horn. There are even adults who know and love the music and are big supporters of the orchestra that don't know basic things; and that's not bad, it's just that we can fix that, you know, and that's what's great. So, that's certainly one area that I'm looking into with my new-found freedom.

The other thing is, don't forget that I still have my orchestra in Norway, so there will be an orchestra that I'm in charge of. It's a wonderful orchestra, and my task now is to try and get their reputation up to where they deserve.

Holbrook: You wanted to get back to opera. Any particular location, or just guest conducting in several houses?

Litton: I think just guest conducting. I've done 15 productions in my career which, compared to the 110 orchestras, the skew is obviously that I've always been an orchestral conductor professionally. But in my heart, what I always wanted, really, to be, was an opera conductor.

I love the repertoire first and foremost. I love the collaborative aspects of opera; the fact that there's a director who's sort of an equal with you, so you're not the only one calling the shots, but that there's another creative force, who you work with and come up with — together — a dramatically viable interpretation of whatever the opera is. I love working with one cast for six or eight weeks. And then when you add the orchestral ingredient, which is always the last ingredient to go into an opera production, it's just the most thrilling thing when you get to opening night, and you've had all this energy focused on this one result: it's great. There's nothing quite like the rush and feeling of a great opera performance when you've been in charge of it.

And so I really want to get back into opera, and one of the problems is time. You cannot do a production of any value anywhere when you're doing 16 weeks with one orchestra, 10 weeks with another, and four weeks with still another, which are my three positions. So the Dallas 16 weeks, I'd like to see some of those go to one or two opera productions a year; so we'll see.

Holbrook: One opera production that you would like to do, that you're just dying to get your teeth into. What would it be?

Litton: Der Rosenkavalier.

Holbrook: Why the Strauss?

Litton: I adore Strauss. My favorite orchestral music to conduct, of course, is Mahler, and the operatic equivalent for me is Richard Strauss. They were, of course, semi-friends, they knew each other quite well, and I think Strauss enjoyed tormenting Mahler, who was filled with self-doubt, as we know. But Strauss' operas, starting with Salome in 1905, are just masterpieces.

Holbrook: You've got the remainder of this season, then two more seasons with the DSO. What do you have on tap? Are there any further recordings? Will the Mahler cycle be picked back up and completed?

Litton: Well, first of all, the Mahler cycle...it's really up to [Dallas Symphony Association President] Fred Bronstein and the [Dallas Symphony Association] board to see whether financially we can pick up the rest of the Mahler cycle. It is quite expensive recording Mahler symphonies. It's tragic to me that we haven't finished them, considering we only have three more to go. I'm not going to slit my wrists over it, but I sure would have loved to have given Dallas a boxed set of Mahler symphonies. And also, the frustration is we would have been the first American orchestra in 20 years, if not more, to release a set of Mahler symphonies. Sure, they've come out of Europe — but not America. So, anyway, never mind!

But we have, don't forget, a recording project underway with Hyperion of the Rachmaninoff piano concerti, and those will be finished in April. And they're also recording some music of Schwantner as well, so we're doing a modern, contemporary disc of American music.

Really, it's not going to be "goodbye" in 2006 because I've been given this lovely title of Music Director Emeritus. And what that means is two or three weeks a year anyway. So the audience for the first couple of years after I leave is still going to be saying "Is he still here?"

As a matter of fact, perhaps the only downside of having announced this so early with two and a half years to go is people will honestly think "Well, surely you've left by now." The thing to remember in classical music is that things book so far in advance that you really have to plan that far in advance. I mean, I know what I'm doing for the next two years. Completely. So we're talking three years from now, this is the time to fill them with something else.

This is the perfect time to make the announcement, and it's a perfect time to allow the Dallas Symphony to start their search. Their search isn't going to be accomplished overnight, either. Once they zero in on somebody, assuming they have a big enough career, they're not going to be able to start right away. It's a process that's time consuming and really needs the lead time we've given it.

Holbrook: Will you have any part in picking your successor, or will they say "You just conduct, and we'll find someone to fill your shoes?"

Litton: That's basically it. I think they've really got to have their own agenda and make up their own minds. They will ask, of course; consult. That's great, and I would sort of expect that, you know, I'd be a little offended if people said "Well, you did a great job for 12 years, but now, 'bye!'". But, at the same time, it can't be my decision; it's got to be the orchestra's decision and the board. I wish them all well. It's a fantastic job: so whoever gets it is going to be very happy here.

Holbrook: The end of the two and half years, does the Litton family pull up stakes? Where do you envision doing the production work on the children's programs?

Litton: Those are interesting questions, and I have no idea. One of the things about this much lead time, no decisions have been made. If I don't have another major position somewhere, which quite frankly I don't really want, I would love a sabbatical from the kinds of responsibilities of music directorship, for a short while anyway.

Dallas is still a great base of operations for the kind of guest conducting I do. The airport's terrific. We love living here; the kids love their schools, and it's just a wonderful community. So, we'll have to see.

This interview was first broadcast in the spring of 2004 on WRR Classical 101.1 FM.
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