Andrew Litton Conducts The Bergen Philharmonic

Header-image-StephenBy Robert K Stephen

(TORONTO, ON) – Perhaps there is no need to read what follows. Just watch the Bergen Philharmonic, of Norway, perform Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 5 in Bergen, as streamed on 15 January, and directed by American conductor Andrew Litton.

The stream is a stream and lacks real time film quality, but it’s good enough from an audio-visual perspective to sit back for an hour and enjoy. Streaming classical musical performances is a growing trend.

Litton opines about why the Bergen Philharmonic live-streams performances;

“I have no idea. The difference between my role in Norway and America is that in Norway the King gives us 85% of our budget,” Litton said. “In America you have to raise every cent. It has been wonderfully refreshing over the last 12 years to NOT worry about balancing the budget. In my role as Music Director of the Colorado Symphony, where money is a constant struggle, and of the New York City Ballet, where the orchestra budget is just one small piece of the pie, balancing the budget is back at the forefront of my efforts.”

Andrew Litton.

Andrew Litton.

Now, if you take an historical analysis of classical or early music, you will note that, as it sprung up in medieval and baroque times, it was but a pleasure for the royalty that could support it. Musicians were on staff, so to speak, to the royal families. Music was barely accessible in the 1500’s.

You might be lucky enough to hear it in the churches of Germany or Spain but, of course, with no radio, television, internet, or even concert halls, classical music had a limited reach to the aristocracy.

Imagine being able to sit at home and press a few keys and bingo you are in a concert hall in various locations in the world. Hop on the modernization train.

During his tenures as its Music Director, Litton brought new recognition to the Dallas Symphony and to the Bergen Philharmonic, through touring and recordings. The former very expensive, the latter not so easy to achieve.

Live-streaming does the job far more cost-effectively.

There are problems to overcome, however. Contracts with musicians’ unions, copyright restrictions, etc, but it’s worth the effort to do so if the music becomes accessible to millions.

In the US, the Detroit Symphony is a Virtual Concert Hall pioneer. It’s fabulous to watch one their Detroit concerts with a live listener comment column in the side margin. Fans from Rome, Paris, Malaysia, and Moscow text in their appreciation as they watch the concert.

Bergen PhilharmonicLitton was busy in September 2014 recording Beethoven’s Ninth, for a 2015 Blueray release, with the Colorado Symphony Orchestra, which rose from the ashes of the 1989 bankrupt Denver Symphony. Litton worked closely with Wolfgang Fraissinet and Leslie Ann Jones in the production.

“It was great to get to know her (Leslie),” said Litton. “We had a meal or two together first before we really got into the project, and that helps to build the trust that is essential between conductor and producer. You literally have to be on the same wavelength and there has to be a bond of trust. We established that immediately, and the work side of the project was a total pleasure as a result.”

“The conductor is really in control of everything,” added Jones. “Andrew brings everything to the table, the performance, how he conducts, what he wants in terms of the particular recording, etc. Beethoven’s Ninth has been recorded umpteen times, but I really felt that he added a lot of emotion to his interpretation of the work, and really brought that out in the orchestra.”

Andrew Litton gives his perspective on the role of a conductor.

“In the rehearsal process a conductor is much more like the coach of a football team. You drill passages so that they work in the performance. You prepare for every possible worst scenario. You dot i’s and cross t’s,” he explained. “When you get to the performance, you are there to provide the inspiration and the motivation. Then you are more like the General in an armed conflagration: the idea is to take no prisoners. Music is a performance art which means that it exists for the minute it is played. A video like the Bergen video that can be re-played is a modern convention and goes against the original precept of music which was written to be enjoyed live and at the moment. That is why a conductor is necessary in a performance because it all has to be perfect. It is too late after the audience goes home.”

Perhaps it is Ivan Hewitt of The Telegraph that comments so well on the role of the conductor.

It’s also true that, before all else, a conductor is a timekeeper. But let no one think this function is either straightforward in principle or easy in practice. A musical pulse is a mysterious thing, with only a superficial similarity to the mechanical exactitude of a drum machine. It’s a living, breathing thing, varying minutely from beat to beat. It might imperceptibly gather speed and energy as the melodic line moves to its climax, or ease back as the music’s energy ebbs away.

I’d rather thought an orchestra could lead itself but, again, Hewett adds his personal insight.

Decades ago, when I was a student at one of the London conservatoires, I discovered just how difficult conducting really is. With the cockiness of youth I reckoned it was something I could add to my portfolio of skills without too much trouble. I signed up for a course, and soon found myself in front of a student orchestra, with a Brahms symphony on the music stand. I gave what I thought was a clear upbeat into the piece, and almost immediately things started to fall apart. The winds raced ahead of the violins, the basses lumbered in their wake. The horns missed an entry, probably because they were laughing. Meanwhile I flailed on. Brahms’s carefully contrived texture disintegrated like a ghastly slow-motion car crash.

Andrew Litton weighs in on the subject by stating,

When you view a concert such as the Bergen Tchaikovsky, you are watching the end of a long process. Prior to that performance, the players and I had 15 hours of rehearsal over four days.

In an ideal world, the musicians show up having prepared their parts, and it is the conductor’s job over the four days to make the black dots on white paper emerge as a cohesive whole representing what the conductor feels is what the composer meant.

Musical notation is an inexact science, especially before the 20th century, so when you interpret music by the great masters like Beethoven, Brahms and Tchaikovsky, there is much left to the interpreter (conductor). For example, how loud is forte and how soft is piano?

If all the parts in a measure are marked piano but one voice clearly has the melody, isn’t that piano different from everyone else’s?

What about the correct tempo? Composers routinely write descriptions that are supposed to guide us to the correct tempo, and occasionally they even provide a metronome mark (beats per minute). If I could tell you the number of world premieres I have conducted with the composer present where the final performing tempo was different than what was originally in the score, you would be astonished.

Even numerous recordings exist of composers conducting their own works where they don’t follow their OWN metronome marks (Stravinsky, Copland, Britten).

I can’t say I have seen anything like this Bergen stream before and it was a learning experience, as most of the Bergen stream focused on conductor Andrew Litton; a hot commodity in conductordum, these days.

It’s your chance to witness a conductor up close and personal and it’s a fascinating experience.

Litton has had associations with the Dallas Symphony, Denver Symphony, and the Minnesota Orchestra, in addition to his Bergen director position. He conveys enormous intensity with every movement, whether it is the motion of his hands, eyes, or torso.

It’s like there is a hidden message in every Litton movement.

I can almost imagine Litton with an electric guitar in his hand, like Jimmy Hendrix with passion, except he has no guitar. He has only his body and his baton to convey the message to the orchestra. And the message is a complicated one, considering the range of Tchaikovsky’s Fifth.

Litton’s movements are equally different in range. This is one intense conductor. He’s an art form unto himself.

I don’t believe there is a universal language for the contortions of a conductor of a classical music orchestra. Litton certainly has his language and it works magic with the musicians. It would seem Litton has become more physical and imposing as he has developed his conducting style over the last 35 years.

The Bergen stream has certainly changed my view of conductors and caused me to think about their role. Sure, like hockey players, professional musicians know their instruments and how to read a score but, like a hockey team, a conductor has a role to orchestrate, integrate, communicate, acknowledge, and inspire.

A conductor’s body language is the medium for a conductor’s greatness. Given what I have seen on the Bergen stream, this Litton name is one you will be hearing about more in the future.

Are classical music conductors nerds without any consciousness outside of classical music? Surely they must appreciate different genres of music to escape the boundaries of classical music and breathe new life into it.

Litton admits he was surrounded by classical music 24/7 at an early age. He started piano lessons just shy of his 6th birthday. However he was no test tube classical musician as he admits.

“I was lucky enough to see every original cast Broadway musical from 1965-1982,” he said.

OK, this is a positive step beyond classical music nerdism, and Litton takes it further by admitting his admiration for Canadian jazz pianist Oscar Peterson. Litton become obsessed with Peterson at the young age of 16, but this was after, at the tender age of 10, he had decided that he wanted to become a conductor.

In 1982, at the age of 22, he won the Rupert Foundation Conducting Competition in London and had his London conducting debut with the Royal Philharmonic in 1983.

Now back to Litton’s admiration for Peterson.

“The overwhelming majority of Oscar’s recorded output was with his trio or quartet, but I wanted to feature his solo piano work because when he played alone, he often eschewed his dazzling virtuosity, making it truly possible to hear the amazing colours and voices in his playing, the feathering of the sustaining pedal (only Horowitz had such pedal techniques) and the achingly beautiful original harmonies and the total command of the instrument,” Litton gushed. “This has proved why Oscar Peterson has proved so popular with classical musicians. He did things daily at the piano while spontaneously improvising that the rest of us spend a lifetime trying to achieve.”

Now, how did I meet Andrew Litton?

Well, it just so happens a certain Manhattan Martini buddy of mine is very tight with Litton and facilitated an introduction. And, according to my Manhattan contact, Andrew Litton makes the best martini in the world. So, on a personal note, Litton’s view on Martinis shows he is a human being, just like the rest of us.

“Straight up with a twist or olives depending on my mood” he started. “The Gin (or Vodka) must be kept in the freezer. There is much talk of not bruising the gin, but I think that is baloney. One must shake the crap out of the gin and then pour it out through a strainer so that you get ice crystals in your glass. The vermouth is in the same room. I’m a Bombay Sapphire guy, but I understand the current Hendricks craze.”

I am not sure about the strainer necessity. If you shake the crap out of a Martini you get the ice crystals so why use a strainer? And olives? A curse to a Martini. A twist of lemon please. Gin in a Martini? Heresy.

Check online to read more about Andrew Litton.

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About the Author

Robert Stephen (CSW)
Robert K Stephen writes about food and drink, travel, and lifestyle issues. He is one of the few non-national writers to be certified as a wine specialist by the Society of Wine Educators, in Washington, DC. Robert was the first associate member of the Wine Writers’ Circle of Canada. Be it Spanish cured meat, dried fruit, BBQ, or recycled bamboo place mats, Robert endeavours to escape the mundane, which is why he loves The Square. His motto is, "Have Story, Will Write."Email Robert Stephen
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