Andrew Litton calls himself the Minnesota Orchestra’s “summer cousin, an outsider who comes to visit but is still part of the family.”

Fans of the annual Sommerfest festival mixing full-orchestra performances with chamber music and culminating in a traditional, semi-staged opera would agree.

Entering his 12th season as artistic director and with a contract renewed through 2017, Litton will conduct his first concerts featuring Italian pianist Alessio Bax next weekend. Later in the season he will take a seat at the piano himself for Schubert’s “Trout Quintet” and Gershwin’s beloved Piano Concerto in F.

This year, Litton said, the Sommerfest theme revolves around works that reflect composers’ fascination with other countries and cultures. On Friday, Rachmaninoff’s sweeping “Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini” is paired with Brahms’ Symphony No. 1. Saturday’s program features works by a Russian and three Frenchmen — Rimsky-Korsakov, Chabrier, Ravel and Bizet — celebrating Spain, as well as native Spaniard Manuel de Falla’s “Nights in the Gardens of Spain.”

“Later we have ‘El Salón México’ by Copland, an American, and we end with ‘Madame Butterfly’ by Puccini, an Italian fascinated by Japan,” Litton said by phone from his home in Westchester, N.Y., just before departing for his annual Minneapolis sojourn. “It sort of subtly stitches the summer together.”

 

Q: What will be the highlight this year for you?

A: The season-finale opera, “Madame Butterfly.” Opera is my favorite thing. But even to do a warhorse like the Brahms is a thrill, if you’re doing it with Minnesota.

 

Q: What keeps you coming back to Sommerfest?

A: The chance to work in a wonderful hothouse atmosphere with such a great orchestra, and going through such a wide range of music in such a short time. Also, it’s great to be part of a summer festival that doesn’t need amplification or bug spray. It’s so civilized.

 

Q: You’ve gotten to know Minneapolis a bit, spending a good part of 11 summers here, and you say you’ve “fallen in love” with the Twin Cities. Why?

A: I’m a New York City boy, and it’s nice to have a downtown you can actually walk around in. It’s also got a real sense of community.

The first hotel I stayed at during my first season, the downtown Hilton, I looked out my window and saw that wall with those musical notes composed by Ravel on it [Schmitt Music’s giant mural showing part of the third movement of “Gaspard de la Nuit”]. That gave me a positive vibe as a musician.

And you can tell from the stage that Twin Cities audiences, they know what they’re listening to. They appreciate high quality and standards. There’s plenty of room for people who are learning, too, but it’s special to know you’re playing for an educated crowd.

 

Q: You were recently named music director of the New York City Ballet’s orchestra, beginning this fall. What’s up with this new direction?

A: I conducted “Coppélia” there last year, and signed a contract in December. I thought, why not? I’ve been doing what I do for 33 years, and to suddenly have this great change in repertoire and experience is wonderful. They have the widest range of any orchestra I know.

The “Nutcracker” will be new to me. They do 38 performances a year, but I’ve only conducted two in my life. The founding premise of this company was, music comes first. That was Balanchine’s belief, and I think [current artistic director] Peter Martins wants to bring the orchestra back to that same original exalted status.