Andrew Litton has become the face of Sommerfest, the Minnesota Orchestra’s midsummer festival of Central European music. Litton’s new contract ensures his warm-weather presence at Orchestra Hall through 2017. It also makes him the longest-serving artistic director in Sommerfest’s 34-year history.
Litton’s home is in Westchester, N.Y., although his professional associations have been in Dallas, Denver, Minneapolis and Bergen, Norway. Music director for 12 years at Dallas, he recently was named to the top post at the Colorado Symphony and next year concludes his tenure as the Bergen Philharmonic celebrates its 250th anniversary.
Pianist as well as conductor, Litton will unveil “A Tribute to Oscar Peterson” during his 12th Sommerfest, which opens this week. He’ll also play piano in chamber presentations, solo on “Rhapsody in Blue” and conduct the semistaged opera “Die Fledermaus.”
He was at home for his daughter’s high school graduation recently, which made it possible to get him on the phone.
Q Was it easy to re-enlist as Sommerfest director?
A It was a no-brainer. The reason this summer festival works is that everyone considers it their own. The appeal for me is to be able to make great music indoors, no bugs and no need for amplification. That’s a dream come true. And this year, we get to use the newly refurbished Orchestra Hall and try out the atrium space. It will be like starting fresh.
Q You conducted here in March, your first time back with the musicians after the lockout. What did you say?
A I said what I normally say, “It’s great to see you all again,” but never have those words meant so much. It was an incredibly painful time, and there were so many moments when one wanted to scream in frustration from the sidelines.
Osmo has spoken about the rebuilding. It’s so true. Not just a question of remembering how to play, it’s just the whole idea of erasing the painful memories of the dispute and what was taking place. You can’t forget that instantly.
The happy ending is they are playing the music they play better than anybody else, and I hope Sommerfest will help heal in the community. So we’ve gone back to the festival’s core — Strauss, Vienna. It’s extremely friendly programming.
Q What else distinguishes the schedule?
A I told them it was essential to bring back the chamber music. The players suggested the Mozart “Gran Partita,” which has lots of players. It’s brilliant programming and a perfect piece for cementing the relationship back to the music, where it belongs. Brahms is ever popular, and I just love the Second Symphony, which is the most summery of all the symphonies.
Q What about the Chopin Piano Concerto with Natasha Paremski?
A Conductors don’t love Chopin, but pianists love it. It’s 19th-century pops, with lots for the pianist to do, but the orchestra is mostly playing those whole notes. Natasha is a charismatic player, and the Chopin will work in the Johann Strauss night. Strauss brothers were writing for Viennese salons, and Chopin was writing for French salons.
Q You’ll release your Oscar Peterson CD on Saturday (with Litton playing piano at 10:30 p.m. in the Target Atrium). Talk about your obsession with him.
A Obsessed is the exact right word! A friend gave me this LP on my 16th birthday and it was “Tracks” by Oscar Peterson. I was blown away by this uptempo “Simple Life.” I said, “He’s off the beat,” but I started clicking along with it, and he’s not only fooling us that he’s lost it, but he’s absolutely on the beat. It was an epiphany, and I became a groupie.
It all came full circle in 2004 when I was able to introduce jazz into Sommerfest, and brought Oscar. It fulfilled the dream of a lifetime, bringing him to something I had something to do with.
Q How do you maintain a home life with your schedule?
A I have a very understanding wife and children. It’s been routinely five to seven weeks on the road, and that’s not good. It’s a challenge, but everyone understands what I’m doing in this family.
Q Did you ever learn Norwegian in Bergen?
A I can be a little dangerous with it, but no, I never studied it. Everyone speaks English, and there were 20 different nationalities in the orchestra.
Q You’re a great host at Sommerfest, introducing the music. Do you enjoy that part of the job? Because not all conductors do.
A It’s essential in a summer season. I don’t believe in doing it every week in Denver. My first influence was Bernstein and the Young People’s Concerts. I was so blown away by his descriptions, and then when he played, he taught me something. The irony about all this is that when I was small, I was so shy. My mother would watch me in later years and say, “When did that happen?”
Q Talk about the differences between conducting opera and symphony orchestras.
A Opera was my first love. When I was 10, my godfather [Richard Horowitz], who was timpanist 66 years at the Met, started bringing me into the pit. He’d set me up with a light and a score. It was such an amazing education. I knew 30 operas before I knew a Mahler symphony.
What I find so rewarding about staged operas [is] you spend all this time in rehearsal and by the time you open, you know this piece inside and out. Opera has its headaches, too. The human voice is beautiful but fragile. Or you work with a singer who is singer or actor but not both. These challenges do not exist in the symphony. The other great difference is that in opera, you’re dealing with a director. There are two bosses. In the orchestra, the conductor is the boss.