theartsdesk Q&A: Conductor Andrew Litton | Classical music reviews, news & interviews
theartsdesk Q&A: Conductor Andrew Litton
The jet-setting American in conversation as he renews his contract with the Bergen Phil
We’re talking in Berlin for two reasons: Andrew Litton has just renewed his contract with the Bergen Philharmonic – he’ll see out at least 12 years as the Norwegian orchestra’s principal conductor – and they’ve now reached the holiest of holies on their European tour, the Philharmonie. The long-term relationship is rare enough, given the musical chairs of today’s higher-paid international conductors, though not unique. Yet it seems to me that what they have together probably is - and I can say, hand on heart, that the Bergen/Litton Berlin concert knocked spots off the one time I heard the Berlin Philharmoniker and Rattle play in their fabulous home.
It’s nothing new for this most jet-setting of American conductors and pianists, whose work I’ve admired since being stunned by his Rachmaninov cycle with the Royal Philharmonic in 1989, his Gershwin Porgy and Bess at Covent Garden and the stunning New York Philharmonic concert performances of Sweeney Todd (Litton pictured with Sondheim above right). But he told me, as we shared an extra coffee after breakfast, that even in his wide experience this had been something special. You'll notice this is not so much a Q&A as a conversation, and this very dynamic American calls most of the shots.
ANDREW LITTON: When you get to the Philharmonie in Berlin, it’s the most perfect orchestra set-up in the world, because Karajan with all his amazing ego and genius knew how to build a place where you actually see everyone’s face in the orchestra, there’s no other place in the world like it…
DAVID NICE: And the feeling of everyone surrounding the orchestra and conductor...
Well, I’m not even talking about the audience perspective which of course we can laugh about, you know, conductor centre of attention, I’m talking about when you’re standing on that platform, on the podium, you can actually engage every single one of your troops, and there’s no other venue that I’ve ever been to - and I’ve been everywhere! - that’s remotely like that.
Really? Because the disposition of the orchestra would be the same, at least the way you wanted it, in any hall.
But it’s the risers, it‘s extraordinary – even in places like the Musikverein or the Concertgebouw there’s always someone who’s slightly obscured. That doesn’t mean you can’t get as great a concert or a better concert, that has nothing to do with it – I’m just talking about the actual feeling of standing there, you feel impervious to any flaws, you feel this is going to be amazing, and that’s a great way to start a concert.
I have to say, and this is no flattery, the only time I’ve been to the Philharmonie before to hear the Berlin Phil it wasn’t a very good concert, and I didn’t actually get the impression that I got last night that there’s this incredible space and air around the sound, because it was very thick, clotted [Rattle was conducting Strauss's Ein Heldenleben], whereas the transparency of your sound and the stuff you could hear in the cellos and violas especially…
Well, that’s so sweet of you to say, I worked on this a lot, so I’m glad you picked up on it. I’ve never had the privilege of working with the Berlin Philharmonic - that's one of my bêtes noires, and I’m supposed to have lunch with the concertmaster, so maybe this is a turning point - and in fact the only times I’ve performed in the hall have been with other orchestras – I was here with the Dallas [Symphony Orchestra, where he served as principal conductor from 1994 to 2006; he is now Conductor Emeritus]. It’s a great hall and in so many ways, not just the sightlines, and when you’re working like I have been tirelessly for nine years with my lovely people, the payoff is when you get to places like the Philharmonie in Berlin: that's when you actually get to hear the work. Because you don’t ever really realise your dream until you get some place where it’s actually practicable to hear everything you’ve been working on.
How’s the concert hall in Bergen? I’ve not been.
It’s great, it’s late Sixties, maybe early Seventies, it’s that look we know and maybe don’t love, but it’s home. And the audience is great, we can record there as we have been doing feverishly. But the experience of something like last night, the pride that you feel as a music director when something goes well like last night is so much greater than just another good concert as a guest conductor.
And you feel it from the orchestra today – they were very high last night, I mean you’ve done a concert in an important place...
You’ve done a concert well in an important place – I’m sorry, I’m putting words in your mouth, but I felt that, I thought it was good, they are a very special group of people, it’s not anything like any other orchestras I’ve worked with as far as the disposition goes in terms of having so many foreigners, and having so many foreigners in key places – I mean, I’m a foreigner, but in terms of non-Norwegian, it’s such a wonderful hotchpotch, and what this creates is this beautiful synergy between everyone’s ethnic drives: I have a bunch of Latvians out of nowhere, and they’re so driven and they inspire each other, and then it spins off on everyone in the immediate proximity. And it’s extraordinary, last night the inner circle of strings - well, it depends on which concertmaster, but let’s take the Rachmaninov [Second Symphony in the Berlin concert] with the dark-haired one [Melina Mandozzi from Locarno] - so it’s Swiss, American, German, Japanese, Latvian, Latvian, Latvian, American, so not a Norwegian in the inner circle.
And I must say that when I showed up in 1998, having been sent to Bergen by Nick Mathias, my friend and at that point my manager, I was like, "Nick, why have you sent me here?" We get off the plane and I think, "What am I doing? I’ve never even heard of this orchestra." And it was pissing down rain as always, and cold, dark, and next morning it’s like this [brilliant spring day in Berlin] – exactly like this – I throw open the curtains of the hotel room and it’s sun and mountains and fjords, and I say, "OK, it looks nice." And then I walked to the hall and I started the preparatory beats for Shostakovich Five thinking, oh, God, and they practically knocked me off the podium, the intensity of the sound, it was so great. So even then the strings had an intensity. And my whole goal, my Don Quixote-esque, Man of La Mancha goal in orchestra-building has always been based on my youthful experiences as a kid growing up in New York, and to me the greatest string sound I ever heard was the Philadelphia strings of the late 1960s.
It was still Ormandy conducting then?
Very much so. In fact, when I became assistant conductor to Rostropovich [in Washington in 1982] (the two pictured right in 2003) a week after graduating from the Juilliard, the first season Ormandy came to do this symphony [Rachmaninov Two], and that’s where – I actually went and took his score home and took all his markings, I’m very proud to say I stole from the man - and that’s why it sounded like that, all the slides? You can’t get more official than that.
So the Bergen orchestra had a string sound already that I could build on, and then the other part of the impossible dream was to get the precision of the other orchestra with which I was obsessed in those days, the perfection of Cleveland/Szell. And so I want to match the two.
The lushness of Philadelphia/Ormandy with the incisiveness of Cleveland/Szell?
Exactly. And so that’s what I want. And the closest I’ve come to date has been here with the orchestra in Bergen.
The idea of staying with an orchestra for so long isn’t terribly fashionable, is it? Neeme Järvi [with whom Litton studied and whom he adores] was in Gothenburg for a long time... but knowing all the woodwind players individually and finding you can trust them to do certain things...
I love the sense of family, and this is a family and they’re a lovely family – you’ve probably got a sense of that already – and it’s not put on. You meet people like this in America, you think, OK, they’ve got to be from the South because nobody from the North ain’t going to be this friendly.
The Finns and the Swedes strike me as quite similar. Initially they seem quite reserved, but they're very humorous - I was surprised to find that your administration loved Fawlty Towers.
Listen, the irony there is that there’s four and a half million Norwegians so everything’s in English. Unlike Germany, France, Italy, wherever, in - as the last president would have said - the countries of old Europe, they don’t translate them, they don’t dub them, because there aren’t enough people to warrant the expense. So Norwegians grow up hearing the original voices in the original language, which is why they do grow up speaking English well, but comprehending English even better. I love that. You might ask, why haven’t I learnt Norwegian? I refuse to bother. Because they all speak it differently, the country's so filled with dialects, and God forbid you pronounce one of the 15 vowel sounds slightly differently, they’re looking at you like ohmigosh I’m really worried, this may be the time to call the police... [raucous noises from the Champagne-quaffing orchestral players on a nearby table].
No, seriously, where we are now is that suddenly it's like only four years to the big party, and in Bournemouth, we celebrated 100 while I was there [as music director of the Symphony Orchestra from 1988 to 1994], in Dallas we celebrated 100 while I was there, and then suddenly – 250 in Bergen? [The institution founded in 1765 soon became known as, and remains to its citizens, Harmonien.]That’s not going to happen anywhere else, why leave?
And especially because we weathered our seven-year itch – and I defy you to find one maestro/orchestra relationship that hasn’t had one - and in fact I think my relationship with this orchestra is stronger than it’s ever been now, so why leave? (Pictured left, Litton celebrating the contract renewal in Bergen.) And then there’s the other - well, was there a better offer anywhere? Well, no, so everything just came together and I just thought this is great, it’s such... The best way to put it is the perspective of my wife who misses me terribly when I’m away this much, but my wife's from Leicester...
She was a string player in the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra?
Yes, I stole her away from there, me and Esa-Pekka [Salonen], we both stole Janes from British orchestras... Anyway, I always call her on Monday after my first rehearsal back in Bergen, and she says, "You’re happy to be back, aren’t you?" and I say, "Yes." Always in those first five minutes I'm like, this is worth the schlep to get to Bergen and be away for so long. It's just something about the way they work and play. It's never perfect on a Monday, it doesn’t matter, it’s just that compared to the Mondays in other orchestras in Europe, the Monday in a Bergen situation gives such hope for Thursday’s concert, you know where it’s going to go. I love it, it gives me so much energy.
Do you think being so remote and just being able to focus on the essence of the music-making, not having to worry too much about the politics you’d have to worry about in London or the States, makes it easier?
It’s definitely easier. As an American music director in Dallas, well, I was there in the good days of the economy, we still got nothing from the government, and now I walk into an orchestra which gets 85 per cent from the government, it’s almost like pinch me and tell me when it’s over. It's a totally different mindset. The fact we can go on tour with [music by Norway's leading contemporary composer Rolf] Wallin and we play his stuff all the time in Bergen, that’s telling, because we’re not a BBC orchestra, we are the one orchestra in town.
Do the audiences come there whatever you do?
They kind of do, because it’s trust, and more successful touring we do here, the more they will come, because it’s something to believe in and embrace.
I feel that’s true of Liverpool and Birmingham now where the audiences feel a part, with Andris Nelsons and Vasily Petrenko talking before each concert, in a way you don’t get in London. You can develop that relationship much better.
And I think it’s essential to. One of the problems is that we took so long to wake up and smell the coffee – that people in our countries weren’t so desperately in need of our music that you could just go on, as in Germany where it still seems to be the case, playing your Mahler and your Bruckner and not engaging the audience on a personal level. We’ve learned the hard way that you’ve got to – well, pander is completely the opposite of what I’m trying to say, but it can be perceived as pandering when you’re an elitist and you’re saying, "Oh, this is great art, surely they will come to us." It doesn’t work that way any more, people haven’t grown up with the exposure or the education.
Because younger generations haven’t had the music education at school.
I know with my kids… you have to present it on a different level, like, "Listen to how this makes you feel," and suddenly they say, "Oh my gosh." I mean, I don’t know who those kids were last night doing the wave [in the Philharmonie audience], we had no idea who they were. There's been a certain papering of the house, which was a shame – Vienna was sold out, Munich was 90 per cent, we’ve had great houses, it’s just like Berlin was always, OMG what are we going to do?
But those students had probably been encouraged by Rattle’s programme which has got younger kids and schoolchildren in...
It’s thriving here, the youth education.
Well, there you go, that’s the explanation, you’ve probably hit the nail on the head. Whatever the case, it was so great for us, to have that.
And that is starting up, I think, everywhere, partly due to younger people’s curiosity in mixing and matching on the internet, they’ll listen to classical as well as other genres, but as you say you’ve got to educate people to come in the first place, and once you’ve got them there they’d be hooked.
It’s the Pied Piper thing - once you get one, they all want to come.
I think the mistake with British orchestras used to be with what they called music education, which was to send one or two musicians out to schools to say, this is a violin, this is a trumpet, have a look, but they never got them to come to the concerts.
Because the sound of an orchestra...
...If you hear The Rite of Spring for the first time...
You see, that’s what did it for me. For me it was Respighi’s Pines of Rome – it’s well documented, I was going to the Bernstein children’s concerts, and it wasn’t the first one that got me... I would love to say to you the epiphany came at the first one, and it didn’t, I was nine years old and I was fidgeting as much as the other kids. I’d been playing piano for three years at that point, and then suddenly in my 10th year he did Pines of Rome, and I was absolutely captivated first of all by his description of these four vistas in Rome...
...Which you hadn’t seen for yourself then?
I’d been to Italy with my parents, I just can’t remember if we’d been to Rome yet, because we went to Europe every summer - I come from a completely European background, there was no country house like people of means have, we just went to Europe to see the relatives, so we certainly knew Italy. Whether we knew Rome yet I can’t remember to be honest, but I just couldn’t believe the sounds the piece had, and of course Lenny's exuberance and the descriptive nature, and they used an old 78 Victrola recording for the nightingale.
The one that Respighi himself used?
Yes, and years later when I conducted it for the first time, I got the tape of that Victrola, because it’s the most pure-sounding nightingale you’ve ever heard - so often it just sounds like a party in the woods, this was one lone nightingale and it was stunning.
I must just digress ever so slightly – one of my friends told me that in the beginning of April in Berlin you can hear nightingales in the city centre.
I’ve yet to hear a live one [laughs]. So there was this whole experience of having this visceral piece wash over me, and I walked out of my hall and I said to my mother who picked us up, me and my little buddy, "I want to be a conductor," and I’d wanted to be a fireman up to then. And she just laughed, my mom, who is the most supportive and loving, caring mother in the world, she just laughed. But anyway, that was it, it was that piece, and with the trumpets and all the effects done televisually.
It’s a great work for the Albert Hall.
Listen, I have a concert coming up at the Festival Hall [31 May, 2011] with my lovely Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, we’re doing Pines of Rome and [Walton's] Belshazzar’s Feast in the same concert. So bring your earplugs [laughs], the decibel level alone will be roof-raising. The spatial effects are important, you can use them, I think that’s really important.
Watch Litton conducting the RPO in Respighi's arrangement of Bach's C minor Passacaglia at the 2010 Proms
But this is another thing, coming from London, to hear an orchestra in the Philharmonie, as in Birmingham, you suddenly hear it with the lid off, all this air around it, which is a liberation in the first place, it must be so good for the orchestra. By the way, I remember your, for me, pretty seminal Rachmaninov concerts with the RPO.
Wow, that was 1989.
I remember the huge impact the First Symphony had on me then - I knew it, but not in the kind of knockout performance you gave.
Thank you – well, my feeling about that piece is you really do need to help it, it doesn’t stand by itself, whereas theoretically you could beat through a performance of the Second Symphony and it would work. There are a few symphonies – Tchaikovsky Third is another, dare I say - that need a little injection, drive, that you really need to help out of the hotel room.
But it's very much the young Rachmaninov's voice, isn't it?
It’s totally his voice.
And it's so hard to believe that virtually the whole symphony is constructed out of two themes.
But he did that – it’s like when I do Rach Two the cellos and basses begin with [Litton sings the opening] – that interval of a second goes through the entire symphony and so it’s got to be big, I need this huge crescendo on it. The motto idea is something that followed him throughout his life, and with the Third Symphony it’s actually, here’s the motto, now here’s the symphony. He actually puts it in there for all to see, and I’m so happy, selfishly and in a much grander scale, that he is accepted now, because I’ve always loved this music and now I don’t have to feel guilty for that. Thank goodness for that – we have enough ugliness in our lives, we can appreciate someone who could write music like this that is not cheap and tawdry but quite the opposite.
You know, there was an article that appeared when I first started in Dallas in 1993, asking who would your guests be at a fantasy dinner party, and mine are still the same all these years later. I just love music too much to want Shakespeare or Thomas Hardy, no, it’s Rachmaninov, Mahler and Gershwin. Because their music has been so much part of my life, but they were great performers too.
It’s tragic we don’t have more of Rachmaninov conducting, the fact that RCA turned down so much.
All of this stuff! Can you imagine, we couldn’t have the Symphonic Dances with Horowitz? "Oh no, that won’t sell" - I mean, can you imagine? And his recording of the Third Symphony, David, is quite candidly one of the mantras that I carry with me when I’m doing any sort of interpretation of any piece, because you realise how different it is from the score and here is not a composer like, pace, Copland or Stravinsky, who couldn’t really conduct - dare I say there are others we could even name. Here is somebody that was a conductor-composer before he left Russia. He wasn’t a pianist-composer, he learnt to play piano to support his family, and then became the greatest pianist ever, but he was a conductor first. And when you listen to this, I think it’s 1939, recording of the Third Symphony - which of course they recorded in seven-minute segments, but it’s a complete take – the orchestra, he’s winding them around like a great musician.
It’s true tempo rubato isn’t it?
Yes, and the tempo rubatos have nothing to do with what’s in the score. And that to me is the most telling example of a genius composer saying, "Now this is how I feel about this today." We as interpreters are caught between the cross-hairs, we have critics who say, "You didn’t follow the metronome markings, you didn’t do this, you didn’t do that," but in the meantime, wait a minute, here’s a perfectly capable composer conductor who doesn’t follow his own markings. So if it’s within the spirit of said composer, are you wrong?
It's funny we brought this up, because it's the Third Symphony I just did two weeks ago. I show up at Bournemouth and I’m looking around, and I feel like I’m at a youth orchestra, all these kids and I don’t know anybody, so I start off my rehearsal by making a little joke about it. I say, "Shut up today" - like I’m at a youth orchestra - "Who are all you people? I’m Andrew, by the way." But I also said, "As I was packing for this five-week trip and I threw the Rach Three in my suitcase, I thought, why are we doing this again, we just did it, why am I agreeing to this? and then I opened the score and realised it was 23 years ago. That’s when I suddenly felt really old."
Everybody laughed and it was a great way to start the week actually, and so two of my original bass players did a count while I was rehearsing – probably more interesting than my rehearsal. Twenty-four people. That was all that was left, 24 people from Andrew’s Bournemouth SO. It was really interesting, because that’s the story of music, it’s constantly changing.
Do we still have this unwritten chemistry? Yes, I don’t know why, it’s so weird, because two-thirds of the orchestra hadn’t seen me before, certainly hadn’t worked with me as a principal conductor, so it’s bizarre, but it’s still great too, and there’s still that sense of joy in making music that I need and I so respond to, and that’s what I get with these guys.
I thought the Second Symphony last night sounded very different from when you did it with the RPO; it seemed to have more drive, not that it was ever too slow. It was more relaxed back then, would you say?
I don't know, unfortunately I don’t have any recordings of us doing this, but I just feel it’s a mistake to get too ponderous and languorous in this music. There are other pieces where that does work, but this I think has a youthful energy that’s always bubbling like that volcano in Hawaii that never stops, there’s something that’s always going on here.
But on the other hand it’s quite difficult to make it move because it’s quite thickly scored.
But when everyone’s playing it at the right time and the right place and together, it’s amazing how you can hear all those lines, and that’s what I’m trying to achieve.
Well, that came through so well last night.
Ah, thank you, I wasn’t fishing.
The way you defined just those pizzicato cellos and basses at the end of the slow movement...
Well, it’s so happy, it’s the end of the movement.
And the build in the very middle of that movement, which goes on for ever, it didn't peak too soon. Do you feel when you’re doing that line that there is that extra adrenalin charge?
Yes, I’ve often joked I can only do this once a day, which is a vaudeville line from the beginning of the 20th century, but when you plan that... first of all, they’re playing from my parts, which are all taken from Ormandy, stolen very happily, and tweaked over the years. There are people who come to me and say, that really would work better like that, ok, let’s try that. But when you’re working towards a climax like that, there have to be levels towards every climax. I was laughing to myself the other day: the first climax of the symphony comes three minutes in, and that’s already an orgasm, and if you’ve had one there how are you supposed to face another every three to five minutes?
It’s so important to know where your really big climaxes are, and in fact the biggest climax in the slow movement occurs less than halfway through, the one you mentioned, this side of the mid-point. So I think that’s part of what makes the pacing of it so telling, because you know you’ve got the rest of the movement to go.
And in the scherzo you took the main sections really briskly but slowed down for the lyric theme, which worked so well. Sometimes when that comes back and the pace hasn’t been right, you think, oh, why again?
I try and do that theme slightly differently second time around, as we do in Anitra’s Dance [from Grieg's First Peer Gynt Suite at the start of the concert], the cellos make a little crescendo there seconda volta the way they haven't done before. Same thing with Tchaikovsky Six, which is the other piece on the tour, same thing [Litton sings the central melody of the second movement] - first four bars emphasising the violins, second four the cellos, and when it comes back, the reverse: crazy, just slightly different, I haven’t changed any orchestration, it’s just a question of what you choose to emphasise. I think it makes it more living, breathing. If we had this symphony tomorrow I’d probably phrase things differently. It’s the same idea.It was a real treat to hear the Grieg pieces, which we just don't get to hear in standard symphony concerts - probably they're played all the time in Norway.
It's such fun for me. You know, I started my life musically as a conductor and as a professional in the UK, so my Elgar was learned at the feet of the great orchestras, the RPO, ECO, they taught me to do Elgar. And a very English wife who’s passionate about it, and Andrew Keener, my regular producer, they’re all sure they know how Elgar goes. I have such a deep appreciation of his music that you have to learn when you’re not English. It’s not built in, it’s very hard for foreigners to buy into it straight away because it’s not represented in their own countries. Still in America it’s the Enigma Variations, the odd Pomp and Circumstance March, the Cello Concerto - I mean, I've done a lot of Elgar there, but the point is you don’t grow up hearing this music. The greatest pieces, the symphonies, the Violin Concerto, not to mention the oratorios, those just don’t get done enough.
Anyway, the point is, I show up in Bergen to do Grieg and of course I’m intimidated because I don’t know. I’m a pianist. I know the Grieg A-minor Concerto, and we’re doing a bunch of Grieg, and I say to the then concertmaster, who’s Norwegian, "What’s the tradition in this?" And he laughs and says, "Andrew, you’re the Norwegian tradition." And it was such a wake-up call in a way, I’m the music director of the Bergen Philharmonic, Grieg’s orchestra. I am the Norwegian tradition! Whoever wants to admit that American is the Norwegian tradition is right!
They were saying last night that their tradition had been to play it quite soberly, that you brought a bit more flexibility to it.
Let’s not forget that Grieg was essentially a German composer. He spent all those years there, his friends were Brahms and Tchaikovsky, who couldn’t speak to each other terribly well, but Grieg wasn’t a threat to either of them, so they were mates. And when you think about that world and how they would sit across a dinner table from each other like we’re sitting here, it fills you with an inner strength. Because I know how Brahms and Tchaikovsky go so I should know how Grieg goes – it’s a faulty logic, but it’s the same idea. And where Grieg was at his strongest was in miniatures. So you take these miniatures - there’s not enough that he actually orchestrated, so you’re not really doing Grieg when you do half of the stuff, so it’s hard - but what’s great is that at the end of the day, this is genetically the same as Hugo Wolf or Brahms Lieder, even though Grieg uses Norwegian folksongs.
And the essence of melody, which in The Last Spring [the orchestra's final encore] just goes on for ever. It keeps unfolding, like Tchaikovsky - it's the same genius in terms of developing a melody.
Absolutely, that is so well put - gosh, I hope I play it that well. It’s so much fun to be there and kind of guide it, it’s almost like flying by wire.
The orchestration for the strings is very different in the second verse of the song.
Yes, the sul ponticello [close to the bridge effect] and so on, it’s just wonderful for me because they have so much to offer and they love to be engaged, so for me it’s the perfect symbiotic relationship – sorry, I’m back on the orchestra again.
So something as silly as yesterday, when Melina questioned letter B, the ponticello, saying it wasn't really piano, it should be softer – and I said, "Well, since you’re bringing that up, three and four bars before B you’re not holding the notes long enough, it’s three beats with a crotchet rest", and they all went, "Ah." Because when it comes back at the end, it’s two beats tied to a quaver. And I said, "I tried to show you last night, and most of you still stopped." They were all, whoa. And that’s what I can bring to the table, you know what I’m saying?
It was the same thing back in 1984 when I did my first Enigma Variations with the RPO, I’d say, "But wait, that’s a short note, why aren’t you playing it short?" I mean, when a composer like Elgar writes a staccato, if you actually follow the markings it comes to life. Even the piano writing - if you watch where he puts the pedal, where he says, down here, up here, it’s so like - OK, wow, if he could only play it for me too that would be perfect, but it’s so clear, it’s so absolutely delineated.
Like Grieg, he's also truly international, but limited by the idea that this is an English composer, isn't he?
Totally, but yet I always compare them, because Elgar is to England what Grieg is to Norway, they are the national composer for lack of a better unofficial term. So you have these men who by virtue of their careers and existence became the most telling composers of their native lands and yet at the same time there are no people who are more international, more representative of a global appreciation.
And I suppose what’s especially native about them is not any shallow patriotic concept but the poetry, the introspection, the nature music.
You know, the most amazing thing was I had already a decade and a half with the symphonies, but I’d never been in the Malvern Hills, and then Andrew and Peter took me up one day. I was working with the CBSO and I mean, ach, somebody could maybe get ill, cynics who would say, oh, come on, give me a break when you talk about the impression of just seeing the same space or breathing the same air. But driving through Lombardy and having Verdi on the car stereo, you just get it, it’s a different level of understanding.
I don’t know, I think when it comes to these composers who just were the most nationalistic, the most representative of their country whether they wanted to be or not - like Verdi is to Italy, Grieg to Norway, Elgar to England, Sibelius is to Finland, and dare I say Gershwin is to America - you can’t help but have a deeper appreciation when you see the same sights they saw, when you breathe the same air they breathed. Anyway, I’ve really enjoyed coming to terms with Grieg and other Norwegian music, I mean, I’ve done lots of Wallin as well, as I said...
How did you feel about the Wallin percussion concerto "Das war schön"?
I have a feeling that if it weren’t played so compellingly it would be a harder sell. But the thing is that Ralf knew he was writing it for Martin [Grubinger, the sensational young Austrian percussionist], and Martin could sell phonebooks on the side of the road free from BT, you would buy them from him, he’s amazing.
He's a total showman - I mean, the nifty footwork in the encore [an arrangement of the rag "Look out, little Ruth"]...
I didn’t see that, I’m too busy playing (with Grubinger in rehearsal, pictured right). You understand that we did it the first time the day before, and basically he just said - because I was always messing around on these instruments just having fun, percussion's my second instrument although I never really studied it – "I have an encore we can do." And that was just decided in Munich, and I've never played the marimba before, it was such a hit that we decided to do it again in Berlin.
And he’s been playing a bunch of different encores, usually a different one every night, but this one just seemed to hit the jackpot, to see two members from the orchestra and the conductor joining him. I don’t know if we’ll do it again, Martin’s like that – I have no idea what Stuttgart’s encore will be. It depends if he gets a xylophone [in addition to the instruments he already plays in the Wallin piece]. The guy who was actually standing next to me and played the timpani in the first half does this duo with him on two marimbas that is astonishing – on a musical level a much more interesting piece, and much more appropriate in the context of the concert.
But the point is we’re a visiting orchestra and you want people to remember you. The orchestra already has four encores prepared for different concerts, but he’s on stage so long every night that I just feel one encore’s appropriate and then leave everyone wanting more. The concert’s two hours-plus, it’s better that they want us back and we can play two next time. And when you travel with your average fiddle-player, pianist, if they do an encore, it’s two minutes, no instrument moves, it happens right away, it doesn’t add to the length of the concert. Whereas with Martin, of course it’s fun and he talks and it’s great, but it has impacted the amount we can do at the end of a concert. I think that’s not a bad thing, you know, everybody’s gotten what they came for, Martin’s our headliner, they’re getting more out of him - and by the way, guess what, we can play more string stuff for you where you’ll still marvel at our strings...
People do talk about the encores long after the concert - but I guess there are works after which it's just not appropriate, like Mahler symphonies.
You’ve got to be very careful, it’s really dangerous. End of a couple of Shostakovich symphonies too: the feeling is, we’ve rolled that already, how can we play this?
I did just want to mention the rather important Prokofiev recordings you've made in Bergen - the piano concertos with Freddy Kempf, where the Second is a kind of benchmark, and the cello works with Alban Gerhardt. The marvellous thing about them is the equal partnership between soloists and orchestra.
Well, my feeling about accompaniments is that when you’re dealing with stuff like Prokofiev, they’re equal – you have to treat your part as a conductor as equally important to the soloist’s, but the soloist of course is still the boss, I always feel that. Perhaps that's why I have a successful track record with accompaniments, because at concerts I tell the soloist, "This is your piece, I have my piece before and after you, for this part of the concert it’s yours – tell me what you want to say."
Freddy's very lovely and straightforward to work with, and with Alban it’s the same thing. Talk about how to wreck someone's day, Alban turns up and I say, "Of course, when I did this with Slava..." because not only was he my boss for four years, he also taught me everything I know. I tell you, the first note the cello plays in the Symphony Concerto, you put on any of Rostropovich’s recordings and it just makes me dissolve into tears, there’s something about his sound that just rips your heart out. I still miss him: life goes on and that voice has been silenced.
I couldn't believe my own response when he died - no other musician has had that impact on me.
That’s interesting, coming from you. I still get that feeling sometimes when I put on something out of the blue – I mean, someone YouTubed me Shostakovich One with Charles Groves and the BBC, black and white, and just the first note, you forget what the impact could be. Actually, I don’t have my iPhone on me or I could show you [he can now - see below] the picture of Shostakovich when I met him, when I was 13 and I had no idea I would go and work for Rostropovich and get to know everything about the guy.
Though I couldn’t get to know him by standing next to him. Trying to see him through his glasses was like looking through the bottom of this glass - those distant pupils, and he stood there for the photo shots and just smiled – sort of. It’s so cool, but now I show people these pictures and they say, "My God, you met him, you’re really old!"
What was the occasion?
It was in New York, there was a Soviet musician that was in New York went to this camera shop on 3rd and 53rd that was run by a former student of the violinist Leopold Auer who didn’t make it, a Jewish émigré, and I don’t know whether he gave them stuff, but I met everyone there – Richter, Gilels, Svetlanov, you name it. Anyway, the phone rang, and this musician said to my mother – because I was 13, living at home- how fast can you get across town, and I was there in 25 minutes.
And what did you know of Shostakovich at that age?
A few piano pieces, preludes, none of the symphonies, I didn’t know I would grow up to have him be one of my favourite composers, it’s one of those things. It was location, location, location – I just happened to be in the right place at the right time and I met him. I only got to know him, as it were, through Rostropovich who started out with him in a teacher-student relationship and then of course they became friends.
Of course, it was so much much more important in that society how the performing musicians were the ones who gave the major composers life, and they all knew each other so well.
Exactly, my dad worked in Soviet American trade in the 1970s, and his best friends were all musicians. If he had to stay over the weekend, he had a great negotiating tool, because he didn’t have to rush home at the weekend if he didn’t want to. All the other Americans would cave in because they wanted to go home on Friday night, and he would just say, "No, I’ve got a standing invite at Svetlanov’s place," or whoever, and so they couldn’t break him. But it was all the musicians, and they were kind of as much as royalty as you could have been in that society, it’s fascinating.
The role of the artist in Soviet society was so big.
Which is why they could also torture you the way they did Shostakovich – I mean, I can’t imagine anyone in your government or my government giving a hoot about what a classical composer wrote or said unless they strapped bombs around their chest and walked into Times Square. There’s no way you’re going to be cared about or thought about, and that’s what’s so fascinating about the difference between then and now and the Soviet world and ours. Sadly it’s become just another country. In spite of the fact that those living in those days weren’t in the best of conditions, it did give us a lot of amazing art.
Unexpectedly profound works, like Prokofiev's Sixth Symphony, which I understand you're planning to record in Bergen.
And some of the others, I hope, though we haven't decided what other works will go with which symphonies. The point is this orchestra, you heard the way they play Russian music, it’s incredible, it’s going to be fun. Have you heard the Stravinsky disc yes?
I have, and the later stages of the Petrushka are absolutely hair-raising; there's a passage which sounds just like screaming, it's the winds just before the radical Masqueraders sequence. And the bass drum in the Rite is captured amazingly in the recording. But why record these two works, did you feel you had something to say?
I guess, but there aren’t that many – sorry, this is going to sound arrogant – good recordings of the original 1911 version of Petrushka, and that’s basically it. My Rite of Spring, I treat it I think differently. Stravinsky was out with Maurice Ravel the day he bought the sketchbook he began The Rite of Spring in. Ravel was the kind of person he was hanging out with, part of the world he was living in, and he wrote this piece out of nowhere. Basically the way I approach it is as a very romantic piece, which has gone horribly wrong if you want to look at it in a negative way. It's like the nightmare version of Rachmaninov Second. But I'm also trying to get the precision of the Cleveland/Boulez recording I grew up with and love passionately, so there's something of that in there too, I hope. It's like I was saying earler about the Rachmaninov - why just do it one way? Why not combine the best of both worlds?
- Andrew Litton conducts the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra in Prokofiev, Rachmaninov and Shostakovich on 12, 13 & 14 May in Birmingham (with Simon Trpceski, piano)
- Litton's forthcoming concerts listed on his website
- Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra website - not to be confused with the Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra, Teaneck, USA
- Find Litton's recordings on Amazon
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