In some ways conductor Andrew Litton represents a throwback to the past.
In an age of scholarship, he invariably injects himself into the music, like the great romantic conductors of the first half of this century. In an age where most up-and-coming conductors get their training in the concert hall, he had his first intensive exposure to the craft in the opera house. And in an age where many, if not all, young Americans gain their first toehold in this country, he made his first big splash in Europe - England to be precise - where his career continues to move at a faster clip than at home."I can't complain," says the 31-year-old Litton, who in 1987 was named principal conductor of Britain's Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra, becoming the first American to serve in that post in the orchestra's 94-year history. He was 28 at the time.
That same week he made his Utah Symphony debut, offering among other things an account of the Brahms First Symphony that I said displayed "a real feeling for the music's romantic impulses without doing violence to its classical frame." In recent seasons he has also conducted the orchestras of Chicago, Philadelphia and Los Angeles as well as at the Met, and his newly issued recordings of the Rachmaninoff symphonies, for Virgin, have been pulling down raves (see review on E4).
So as he returns for another round of Utah Symphony concerts Friday and Saturday, Jan. 11 and 12, in Symphony Hall, he is not exactly an unknown quantity in his homeland. Even so, Litton says, it's still harder for a young American conductor to build a reputation here than abroad.
"You look at this country now and we seem to be obsessed with things made in Germany," he says, "with every orchestra hiring German conductors. I have no problem with that - they're good, too. But this is crazy, bringing people out of the woodwork, especially the eastern bloc, when they're no better than conductors here at home. My own feeling is that things go in cycles and this will end soon. But until then it's annoying to sit on the sidelines and watch."
When he was younger, Litton did a lot of watching. Starting out as a pianist, he was first bitten by the conducting bug at age 9 or 10 while attending one of Leonard Bernstein's Young People's Concerts with the New York Philharmonic.
"He did the `Pines of Rome,' " Litton recalls, adding that he remembers "being sort of grabbed by the neck - I couldn't believe the sounds I was hearing from the stage, and what an enormous sense of color. I suddenly realized there was no way I could do that on the piano, so I immediately begged my mother for a recording of the piece. I must have worn it out, conducting it in a mirror, all the things kids do. But that's what got me going."
What kept him going was the opportunity a year later to sit in on rehearsals and occasionally performances at the Metropolitan Opera, where his godfather, Richard Horowitz, played timpani.
"I was 11 then and obviously couldn't stay up that late," Litton recalls. "But it was a tremendous education. That was 20 years ago and they didn't have the rotation policy they have today, so every night it was a different conductor and it was amazing how different the same orchestra could sound."
Among the conductors Litton got to observe at close range were Karl Boehm, Erich Leinsdorf, Thomas Schippers, Sixten Ehrling (with whom he later studied), his idol Bernstein and the young James Levine. "It was also an amazing education to hear some of those operas 20 and 30 times," he says, "just to get that music into your head. A few years later the policy changed and visitors were no longer allowed in the pit. But I got to see all Bernstein's rehearsals for `Carmen' and see him work in depth."
While still a student at Juilliard, Litton became in 1982 the youngest and, again, the first American-born conductor to win the BBC/Rupert Foundation International Conducting Competition - again having been steered in that direction by Horowitz. "What have you got to lose?" Litton remembers his godfather asking. The result was a number of concerts with British orchestras, including the Royal Philharmonic, with whom he still records, and Bournemouth.
That same year he joined the National Symphony as Exxon/Arts Endowment conductor, later being named associate to music director Mstislav Rostropovich. "The only reason I left," Litton says of his four years in Washington, "was that I was made principal guest conductor in Bournemouth and began getting so many guest engagements that it was difficult sitting around doing study work rather than getting out conducting." Nonetheless he still maintains ties with the National, having married its principal harpist and returning from time to time as a guest. He also credits Rostropovich for deepening his appreciation of the Russian masters.
At the same time Litton comes by his own credentials in the Russian repertoire. The son of second- and third-generation Russian immigrants, he soloed at age 20 with the USSR State Symphony in Gershwin's "Rhapsody in Blue" - itself a product of Russian-American origins - then returned to Moscow in 1987 to lead the Rachmaninoff Second Symphony, the first time in 25 years, he claims, that that music had been performed uncut in the Soviet Union.
"I have always found Russian music very easy," Litton says. "Not in a facile way, but an understanding of the basic emotions was always there." Given that, his 1989 debut at the Met, conducting Tchaikovsky's "Eugene Onegin," should have been one of the great moments of his life. Instead he describes it as a tragedy.
"I was in agony opening night and only found out 48 hours later I had a ruptured appendix. So I ended up spending the next two weeks in the hospital and another four at home on an IV. Levine took over the run. But the thing that bothers me the most is I can't remember the performance. The only thing I remember is that I finished and bowing."
Despite all that, Litton's "Onegin" got him good reviews. This season, moreover, he is set to lead the other "La Boheme" - Leoncavallo's - in St. Louis and in 1992 will make his Covent Garden debut in that house's first-ever "Porgy and Bess."
As was the case in 1987, American music will likewise be represented on his Utah Symphony concerts this week, this time via the Copland Third Symphony. (Last time it was Bernstein's "Candide" Overture and William Schuman's "A Song of Orpheus.") In addition, for the first time Utah audiences will get to hear him in two cornerstones of the Russian literature, Tchaikovsky's "Romeo and Juliet" and the Prokofiev First Violin Concerto, the last with concertmaster Ralph Matson as soloist.
Litton says he and the Bournemouth Symphony performed the Copland a few weeks ago in London, at Royal Festival Hall, and will soon be recording it. "It's such a tremendous symphony," he enthuses. "In Bournemouth they responded with cheers - they just went bananas."
Possibly because the conductor himself was going bananas, at least inside. "My own approach to making music is very non-dictatorial," he comments. "I try to keep it friendly, basically because I'm having such a good time."
Then, after some reflection, he adds, "In a way I think of myself as a bridge between the authentic-instrument guys and Furtwaengler." How so, I ask. "Because what these early-music specialists have done is strip away a lot of 19th-century concepts and notions and gotten us back to what the music might have sounded like on the actual instruments of the time. I myself find my tempi in the Beethoven symphonies have picked up slightly.
"But what I feel is missing - and here's where Furtwaengler comes in - is that in the older approach to these pieces there was an inner life, an inner glow that came across and didn't harm the music but instead gave it a personality the audience could grab onto, a being, if you will, that is often lost in the more clinical scholarly approaches of some of my more distinguished colleagues. That means in order to feel personally convinced, I need to know everything I can about the music intellectually but I also need to feel something in my soul as well. And that's true whether it's Gershwin, Rachmaninoff, Copland or Bach."
Tickets to this week's concerts are priced from $10 to $29 ($5 students) and are available at the Symphony Hall box office, 533-NOTE.