Litton expects greatness from the orchestra, remembers the difficulty of playing the notes



Kelsey Burritt | Staff Writer

It can take a lifetime for an opera singer to make it to the stage of the Metropolitan Opera, but guest conductor Andrew Litton was squeezed into the orchestra pit at age 10.

Litton’s godfather, legendary timpanist Richard Horowitz, would sneak his godson next to the timpani so Litton could watch the conductor, the orchestra and the opera from one of the most unique seats in the house.

“He took me to the opera house three or four times a week during the season, as much as homework and my mother would allow,” Litton said. “So from age 10 to 16, I would sit in the pit next to him, which is just amazing education.”

By age 13, Litton had learned how to read orchestral scores. He would suit up, set up his own music stand and follow along, observing dozens of the world’s finest conductors.

“The great conductors got amazing results from the same players, whereas the maybe average conductors — it was just another day at the office,” Litton said.

Litton will conduct the Chautauqua Symphony Orchestra, now over halfway through its rigorous season with performances three times per week, tonight and Thursday at 8:15 p.m.  in the Amphitheater. Under his baton, it will surely not be just another night in the Amp.

Litton was appointed music director of Norway’s Bergen Philharmonic in 2003, and since, the orchestra has made 71 recordings and performed on several European tours. He was even knighted by King Harald of Norway.

“I don’t get a special discount on anything. In Norway, they don’t call you sir,” Litton said. “In all seriousness, it’s a big honor.”

Also the artistic director of the Minnesota Orchestra’s Sommerfest, Litton guest conducts with the finest orchestras and opera companies around the world, including the Met.

Tonight’s concert begins with Tchaikovsky’s Capriccio Italien, Op. 45, and then features Litton himself on the piano bench and conducting Gerald Finzi’s Eclogue, Op. 10, for piano and strings. Franck’s Symphony in D Minor completes the evening’s program.

In general, conducting while soloing on the piano requires substantial rehearsal time, Litton said. The orchestra must be keenly self-aware for the passages in which the conductor is performing rather than keeping the ensemble together.

Because Finzi’s Eclogue is a piece for piano and strings rather than a solo concerto, Litton said it was a achievable feat in the time allotted.

“The whole nature of the concerto, as music entered the Romantic era, was to have the soloist versus the orchestra, to have an adversarial relationship, and so the orchestra as a body needs somebody as their leader,” Litton said.

By the 20th century, composers such as Gershwin, Shostakovich, Ravel — and Finzi — created works that did not demand the conductor’s constant presence.

“It’s great, because I can actually demonstrate what I mean rather than just saying, ‘Can you play that note softer and that note louder?’ ” Litton said. “It doesn’t change much of my approach, because I believe that all music is chamber music of some sort. That there’s a give and take, that there’s listening and responding — there’s being inspired by your colleagues.”

Litton has played piano since he was 5, but conducting has always been his great passion. He said he sees piano as his great equalizer.

“I think it’s very important when you’re standing on your box, waving your arms and expecting greatness from others, to remember how hard it actually is to play the notes,” Litton said. “It reminds me that actually the act of playing music is very challenging and ultimately very rewarding.”

Litton called Finzi’s Eclogue the perfect piece for summer.

“It’s almost like a little sorbet, if you will, at a fine restaurant to cleanse the palate,” he said. “I thought it would just lower the blood pressure a little bit for everybody listening before we go back into the searingly romantic, passionate symphony that follows.”

Finzi’s Eclogue “palate cleanser” falls between the program’s opener, Tchaikovksy’s Capriccio Italien, and Franck’s Symphony in D Minor, which closes the concert.

Tchaikovsky composed Capriccio Italien after a vacation to Rome following the abrupt end of a disastrous marriage.

“There’s something wonderfully celebratory about it, and cheeky and fun,” Litton said. “This is all about la dolce vita, basically, and it’s great, because you can tell he needed this piece to sort of pull himself up by the bootstraps and get his mojo back.”

Franck’s Symphony in D Minor is a piece that was popular when Litton was a child, but has fallen a bit out of fashion — for no good reason Litton can imagine.

“Franck came from the organ world, so there are times when he makes the symphony orchestra really sound like you’re in church listening to an organ. It’s fantastic,” Litton said.

There is a coincidental correlation between tonight’s program, with Franck’s Symphony in D Minor, and Thursday night’s program, which finishes with Mahler’s Symphony No. 1.

“Both major symphonies that I’m doing on my two programs are from the same year, 1888,” Litton said. “When does that happen?”