Conductor / Pianist Andrew Litton
A Conversation with Bruce Duffie
|Andrew Litton, Music Director of the New
York City Ballet, also is Artistic Director of Minnesota Orchestra’s
Sommerfest, Principal Guest Conductor of the Colorado Symphony, Conductor
Laureate of Britain’s Bournemouth Symphony and Music Director Laureate
of Norway’s Bergen Philharmonic. Recently named Principal Guest Conductor
of the Singapore Symphony Orchestra, he begins his new duties this fall.
Litton led the Dallas Symphony as Music Director from 1994 to 2006,
leaving a legacy of touring including Carnegie Hall, the BBC Proms, the
Berlin Philharmonie, and Vienna’s Musicverein. His Dallas Symphony series
of young people’s Amazing Music video recordings is in use
throughout schools in the United States and abroad. He regularly guest
conducts leading orchestras and opera companies around the globe and
adds to his discography of almost 130 recordings, which have garnered
America’s Grammy Award, France’s Diapason d’Or and other honors. Many
of Litton’s concerts are audio and video cybercast live.
Born in New York City on May 16, 1959, Litton is a graduate of New
York’s Fieldston School. Litton earned degrees from the Juilliard School
in piano and conducting. He served as assistant conductor at La Scala
and at the National Symphony under Rostropovich. Among
his numerous awards are Yale’s Sanford Medal, the Elgar Society Medal,
and an honorary Doctorate from the University of Bournemouth. For his work
with the Bergen Philharmonic, Norway’s King Harald V knighted Litton with
the Norwegian Royal Order of Merit.
Litton, an acknowledged expert on George Gershwin, has performed
and recorded Gershwin widely as both pianist and conductor and serves
as Advisor to the University of Michigan Gershwin Archives. After leading
the Covent Garden debut of Porgy and Bess, he arranged his own
concert suite of that work, which is now performed around the world. In
2014 he released his first solo piano album, A Tribute to Oscar Peterson,
testimony to his passion for jazz, particularly the music of that great
== Throughout this page, names which are links
refer to my interviews elsewhere on my website. BD
In August of 1993, Andrew Litton was making his debut
with the Grant Park Festival, the series of free outdoor concerts on Chicago’s
lakefront, which was celebrating its 59th season. The orchestra, which
becomes the pit-band (!) for Lyric Opera of Chicago during the fall and winter,
played an all-Tchaikovsky program honoring the centenary of his death. On
the day before his first performance, Litton graciously agreed to meet with
me, and here is what transpired that afternoon . . . . . . . . .
Bruce Duffie: You’ve just been named Music
Director of the Dallas Symphony Orchestra, and I want to come back
to that a little later. First, tell me the joys and sorrows of being
an American conductor making a career mostly in Europe.
Andrew Litton: It’s mostly joyful because
the musical experiences have been fantastic. I’ve been enormously
lucky in having been named principal conductor of a British orchestra,
the Bournemouth Symphony, five years ago. The orchestra has been
a tremendous thing for me, really. It’s been a terrific learning
experience, and I hope that I’ve given them back something that I’ve
gained. It certainly has — if you believe
what you read, and I try not to because you’ve got to then believe the
bad things, too! The word on the street is that the orchestra has
done phenomenally well. I feel very good that, and it’s a great,
great thrill to finally to be coming back to America to work. But
I can’t say I’ve been unemployed, or not learning, or not growing at
the same time while I have been working in Europe. It’s been a
terrific experience. Actually, it’s where my career started, so
I can’t really blame any lack of recognition here. It just happened
for me there. I won a competition there, so it’s natural that
the career would start there. I have had an American career that’s
been growing at the same rate, starting about two years or three years
later as guest appearances. So it’s a terrific turn of events to
now be coming back here.
BD: Were you itching to come back, or would
you have been happy staying there for another ten or fifteen years?
AL: I don’t know. I’ve just been terrifically
lucky in my career, and I hate talking about career. I’d much
rather get to the music, but I’ve always basically wound up doing what
I wanted to be doing, and this is no exception. I’m
at a stage with my relationship with Bournemouth where it would be
very easy to stay on, but at the same time we’ve done a lot together,
and maybe it’s time to move on. I grew up in that job, I really
did. They had me when I was really wet behind my ears, and now,
of course, I’d like to think that I have a bit of experience. Certainly,
the orchestra as a whole has been accepted. It’s an orchestra of
international stature, and so maybe now is a good time to move on while
you’re winning, so to speak. The Dallas job comes at a great time
in my life. It’s a perfect time to make a move, and I don’t want
to keep both at the same time. I know a lot of my more distinguished
colleagues believe in two or three orchestras at a time, but I find that
BD: You’re not going to sever your ties with
Bournemouth, are you? [Litton would be succeeded in Bournemouth
by Yakov Kreizberg
(1995-2000), and Marin Alsop
(2000-2008). In a turnabout move, Alsop was Music Director of the Colorado
Symphony from 1993-2005, and Litton held the post from 2013-2016. The
Colorado Symphony Chorus was founded and is still directed by Duane Wolfe, who is also
the current Chorus Master of the Chicago Symphony Chorus.]
AL: No, not at all. As a matter of
fact, in my first season when I begin in Dallas, I will still be doing
eight weeks in Bournemouth. I have been given some kind of fancy
Latin title, like Conductor Laureate. I thought you had to be
dead for that...
BD: That would be Emeritus... [Both
AL: But it’s going to be a situation where
it’ll slowly fade out rather than just disappear altogether, and that’s
great. I hope to continue making records with them because we’ve
really started a good thing there. Coming up now is the complete
Walton cycle for Decca-Argo, which should be very interesting. We’ll
be doing all the concertos, as well as the symphonies, and Belshazzar’s
Feast, and the orchestra just plays that stuff so well. It’s
been a very wonderful sort of metamorphosis. When I first started
in Bournemouth, I was determined not to program a lot of American music
because I didn’t want all the local people to say, “Oh,
gosh, we had a Russian the last time round [Rudolf Barshai 1982-86],
and we got all this Russian music. Now we’ve got an American,
so we’re going to get all this American music!”
I was really sensitive to that, and besides, my tastes are very wide-ranging.
I love Austro-German music, Russian music, and, of course, British
music. I thought, “I’ll do a lot of
this other stuff, and occasionally stick in a little American music.
If it works, great, if it doesn’t, whatever.”
The first season I programmed Bernstein’s Fancy Free, the Barber
Violin Concerto, and that was it. Very mainstream stuff
for an American, but I think it was the first time the Barber had ever
been played down in the south coast of England, and the audience went bananas.
They loved it, and the orchestra just played it with such relish,
and I thought, “Hey, maybe I’m onto a good thing
here.” Programming is done far in advance,
so it took maybe a season or two before I brought back more American music.
When I finished my fifth season we had an American festival, and I did
three solid weeks of nothing but American music. I was still sticking
to the chestnuts of American music, stuff which to us in America is thrice
familiar, but to them relatively unknown... things like the Charles Ives
Three Places in New England, or the William Schuman New
England Triptych, Walter Piston’s Incredible Flutist, which
was a new experience.
BD: These are things you know that they would
enjoy because they’re solid pieces of music?
AL: Yes, and they have a life of their
own, and sure enough it went really well. A lot of people say
that they can’t believe it’s a British orchestra when they hear them play
this American music, and that, to me, is the highest compliment.
There’s no trace of ‘foreign accent’, and that’s really what I go for
in all my music making. But to have had it happen with something
as distinctly idiosyncratic as American music in England has been very
BD: This is not to say that when you play
British music it had an American accent?
AL: No, not at all. Where the story
started was when we were talking about Walton, because my affinity for
Walton is that in many ways he’s the most American of all the British
composers. He’s got all these wonderful syncopations and great
rhythms that have to be done with the kind of precision that Americans
can just toss off, and that’s been terrific. So, I think it’s going
to be a good cycle when we record all this. [Four CD set (totaling
just under five hours of music) shown at right.]
BD: We’re touching on it a little bit, so
let’s continue. When you have this huge of plate of possibilities,
how do you decide which pieces you are going to select each year for your
symphony in Bournemouth or Dallas?
AL: It’s extremely difficult, and it also has
to go hand-in-hand with any recording prospects that are in the works.
It’s too early now to talk about the possibilities in Dallas yet, but
they are brewing. The frustration is that I want to already have
finished programming next season, but I can’t until we have all the
recordings lined up. It’s one of the hazards of the fifty-two week-season.
Everything’s got to slot in just perfectly. In Dallas we have
a very special situation in that for five years in a row its subscription
season has completely sold-out, which, in America as you know, can be
fairly unusual. We have to do these subscription concerts. The audience
is there, and they expect it, and it’s not like you can suddenly cancel
a week to make some records. So, it’s really a challenge, and it’s
a bit of a waiting game until all the loose ends are tied up. But
the idea of trying to put a season together that’s interesting is one
that I meet as a challenge head-on. The most important thing is
for the players in the orchestra to have as well-rounded a season as possible.
If they have as well-rounded a season as possible, the audience is getting
as well-rounded a season as possible.
BD: Even if they’re getting maybe a half
or a third of what is being done all year?
AL: Exactly. Again, being sensitive always
to which subscription gets which, you can’t only have Germanic music
in one series. People will wonder where their French music is,
or whatever. It’s a very interesting balancing game to try and get
everything just right.
BD: [Adding to the myriad details] And
you must include things when the soloist dates are available...
AL: Exactly! We have four series,
and you have to have basically four stars — one
star per series — so there’s that situation
in it as well. It’s the kind of challenge I really find very interesting,
and I enjoy it, I really do! The most important thing facing me
in Dallas is broadening the audience horizons. They’ve had a wonderful
healthy diet of a rather narrow band of music, and it’s really my job
to find other angles to the same thing.
BD: Does that reflect on Maestro Mata, or
does that reflect the Dallas management, or the city of Dallas? [Eduardo Mata was Music Director
from 1977-1993. Among the others who had previously held the position
were Antal Dorati
(1945-1949), Georg Solti
(1961-1962), and Max Rudolf
AL: It’s all of the above. I don’t
ever want to say or even whisper a single bad word about Mata because
he’s done such an incredible thing with that orchestra, and he had sixteen
years of perseverance in the job. My gosh, we should all take a
lesson from that.
BD: Sure, and getting the new hall.
AL: And getting the new hall! It was an
incredible kind of giving that he had for the organization, but it really
does reflect a sort of Top Forty attitude that has crept in, especially
in the last few years. Maybe that’s why it’s sold out, so you have
to be careful, because obviously you don’t want to lose subscribers.
But one thing I’m going to institute in my first season is talking from
the stage. That has to be handled with a lot of delicacy, because
the people that are seasoned subscribers do not want to be talked down
to. They know what a Beethoven symphony is; they know what a Wagner
overture is. They don’t want ‘Music 101’. They just want
to hear the music, so it’s got to be done with a great deal of sensitivity
to them, but also a sensitivity to the fact that our music education system
in this country has left us in the lurch. We’ve really got to educate
not only the young, but also maybe the not-so-young, so that they come
to the concert and it doesn’t just wash over them. I hope that they
will get something slightly deeper from the experience.
BD: You’re dealing here just with the people
who have bought tickets and are coming. How do you get the MTV
generation and the Dallas Cowboys fans into the concert hall?
AL: We’ve already started a whole bunch
of approaches to this problem. I already brought up education,
and one other thing that we’re really exploring is going full frontal on
all age groups in the Dallas Metropolitan area. We’re going out
to the kids, we’re going out to the college students, and we’re going
out to the grown-ups. It’s almost an assault! The way we’re
going to do this is through the media. We’re exploring all sorts
of ways to do videos. You asked about the MTV generation, and this
is the answer. You’ve got to use these media that have been exploited
so wonderfully in the popular culture. Let’s do this with the other
stuff! When you see the success of films like Amadeus, musical
purists could cringe, but at the same time you’ve got to use that and learn
from it. Why is somebody like Nigel Kennedy so popular? I remember
him when he was normal. [Both laugh] I respect enormously
what he’s done, and a lot of people know about Vivaldi and Beethoven and
Brahms that otherwise wouldn’t. So let’s use this. I’m not
saying let’s sell out, but there are ways — if
it’s done with taste, and it’s done carefully, and if it’s done with a modicum
of intelligence — that it can ultimately serve
everybody the best. For me, that means bringing great music to as
many people as possible, and making them realize it isn’t an elitist art
form, but the most pure and wonderful expression of beauty that there is.
Then they’ll realize what this is all about, and that’s what we’re
going for in Dallas. Again, I’m talking in very broad terms because
I haven’t started yet, but this is what we’re after. It’s a fantastic
situation, and I’ve just come on board. We’ve got a brand new chief
executive, his title is President of the Association, and both of us have
this totally zealous approach trying to capitalize on this education idea.
In fact, he comes from education. That’s his background, so between
the two of us, hopefully we will make this happen.
BD: I hope you’re fully integrated
and become a real Texan! [Both laugh]
AL: Well, we’ll see! [More laughter]
* * *
BD: Let’s talk a little bit about the art of
conducting. When you come to an orchestra — and
I assume it will be different if it’s your orchestra or a guest engagement
— how long does it take before it is really your own?
AL: I find that a difficult question to answer.
When it’s your own orchestra, you obviously you know it’s your own orchestra,
and you’re working together as a family. The approach is completely
different than when you are guest conducting. At the end of the
day, the bottom line is the music, but when it’s your own orchestra, you’re
responsible for everything. You’re responsible for how people tie
their shoes. [Laughs] I’m talking musically, but you’re responsible
for every last detail.
BD: [With a gentle nudge] You can’t
expect a professional orchestra to tie their own musical shoes???
AL: Oh, yes, but they’ll have to tie them the
same way. Otherwise you don’t have a good ensemble. The focus
is completely different when you’re Music Director than when you’re guest
conducting. When you go for a week somewhere, an orchestra doesn’t
want to change the style in which they play. As long as you are clear
about what you want from them, they just want to get about the business of
making music. When you’ve just had four rehearsals with an orchestra,
you can’t make miracles. The bottom line is to try and make the
music of that week as close to your conception of what the music that week
should sound like, and that’s it. If you make any more waves than
that, not only will the orchestra be uncertain and not know what’s expected
of them, but the result won’t be pleasant either, and nobody will have
a very good time. At the end of that week, I would like the players
to be exhausted but happy. That would be the ultimate compliment
to me. When you’re Music Director, it’s a very different situation,
and it takes a while. It’s just like a Chief Executive starting
in any job. They always say the first six months is when you make
the most noise, but in music it takes a lot longer. It takes maybe
two or three years before you really understand each other. I’m at
that stage now in Bournemouth, for example, starting our sixth season next
month. One cocked eyebrow is all that’s needed. You don’t have
to stop and say things. People know exactly what you mean when you look
at them, and that’s almost like a marriage. If you know your stuff
that well, you don’t have to say whole sentences, and that’s the joy of
being a Music Director. Simon Rattle, who I respect enormously, has
stuck tenaciously to the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra in Britain,
and the reason cited most often by him is just this fact
— that he knows his orchestra so well that he can relate
to them, that he can work with them as a one-on-one team that is truly a
family. That’s something you lose when you guest conduct. The
other side of the coin is when you do go and guest conduct, you learn a
lot because suddenly you say, “Oh, that’s interesting!
I wonder why they play that better than we can.”
BD: Maybe can you bring that back home?
AL: You do bring that back home, and also,
when you disappear for a week or two, your own orchestra has the benefit
of working with somebody else, which is also fantastic. One of
the things that I’m doing in Dallas is trying to bring terrific guest
conductors in, people who I respect, and people who the orchestra likes.
They just had a two-and-a-half-year search looking for me, and what’s happened
during that search is that they do have a list of conductors with whom
they really enjoyed working. So it’s better for me to come back to
a happy orchestra. If they’ve just worked with somebody they liked,
they’re going to be in a great mood. This is really my approach, but,
as you see, running the orchestra’s very different from just guest conducting.
BD: When you’re doing the regular week to
week rehearsing and performing, do you do all of the work in the rehearsals
so that it’s perfect, or do you leave something for that spark of the
AL: That’s a very funny issue. What
I always do in the rehearsal period is try to show everybody the parameters.
I sometimes think an orchestra that doesn’t know me must think (in the
rehearsal), “Gosh, this guy doesn’t know the tempo
he wants because one minute it’s at this tempo and the next minute it’s
at that tempo.” But, especially in America
where you do a show four times, an orchestra will realize that what I’m doing
is preparing them for the worst. [Laughs] If I get a crazy
idea in the middle of a performance — which has
been known to happen — they’ll be ready for it.
The thing that I hate more than anything else is boring music-making.
I would rather be on the other side of the earth than be responsible
for a concert that’s dull. So, I’ve been known to do incredibly radical
things in the middle of a concert. If I thought it was sounding
generic, I didn’t want to be a part of it. I try never to that at
the expense of the music, but there are times when you just have to take
matters in your own hands. We were talking about luck earlier.
Any young conductor thrives off cancellations of older colleagues, and
I was in the right place at the right time on a number of momentous occasions
earlier on in my career, which is perhaps why I am where I am today.
On one particular occasion, I was working with a very distinguished London
orchestra when their chief conductor was ill, and I had all of his rehearsal
time — which is also incredibly unusual. So,
I had five rehearsals.
BD: Usually you’d step in and
have just one rehearsal?
AL: Right, one rehearsal if you were lucky! So,
I had five rehearsals for this program, which was the Brahms Violin
Concerto and Tchaikovsky’s Fifth Symphony. All you have
to do is look at any London newspaper to see how many times Tchaikovsky’s
Fifth is played in a month, and you realize, with five rehearsals,
my gosh, what am I going to say? But I managed to find a lot to work
on. It’s amazing how, if you really strip away the varnish, there’s
a whole other coating of music behind. So, we got to the concert,
which was a Festival Hall in London. We got through the first theme,
got to the second theme, and I was looking around at a sea of incredibly
bored faces, and it’s sounding dull. I was bored! So, I suddenly
threw in this enormous rubato that we had never done. It hadn’t
existed in the rehearsal, and I saw this entire orchestra sit up. It
was a fantastic experience, and from then on, the performance just ignited.
Afterwards, the chairman of the orchestra — who
is a violinist in the section because four of the London orchestras are
run by the players — came and said, “What
did you do? It was fantastic! We suddenly were paying attention!”
[Much laughter] That’s not my motto, to try and confuse the orchestra
but, at the same time, sometimes that’s necessary. Performances
are living breathing things, and that’s what the audiences comes to hear.
Rehearsals are the dirty work. Rehearsals are where you really
prepare everything a well as you can, and, as I said, you show the parameters.
But when it comes to the performance, that’s the one thing that the people
are going to take away with them, so that becomes special. That
becomes the unique part of making music, and I thrive off of that.
To me, the performance is everything. If you just see me in my rehearsals,
you’ll probably it’s clear, it’s not terribly exciting, but it’s all in
place. But I hope that when you come a performance, you’ll suddenly
go, “Wow!” That is what
I hope to make happen musically.
BD: How much of that is a tribute to you, and
how much is a tribute to the music itself?
AL: It’s all in the music. As a conductor,
you’re only about fifteen per cent of what happens in the concert.
Everything is done beforehand, but in the concert your last bit of effort
is really almost cheerleader. You’re getting everybody excited
and making that music happen. If you’re with a great orchestra, they
can play the notes. Everybody knows that. There’s no mystery.
This is especially true if you’re working with a great opera company,
because you rehearse for weeks and weeks if it’s a good situation.
Everybody knows what’s going on. But when you get to a performance
and there’s that slight bit of adrenaline and energy and nerves, if
you can just ignite that, if you can make it all happen together, that’s
what makes a great performance. Lord knows, it doesn’t happen
every night, but if you can get it a pretty good percentage of the time,
then you’ve done a good job.
BD: Do you conduct the same in the performance
as you do in the recording studio?
AL: Recordings are very different situations, and people
who say that they aren’t are crazy. I’m about to make my first
live record in two weeks’ time. At my first appearance with the
Dallas Symphony since I was named music director, we are recording the
Mahler Five that we’re performing live. The record company’s
calling it Five Live! But recordings made when they aren’t
live are documents. They are actually not what classical music
should be, because classical music is ephemeral. It should just
be the experience of the moment. But here you’re given this incredible
opportunity to play it again and again and again. So, by the very
nature of that, it should be a little bit more together, a little bit more
perfect than perhaps a performance would be.
BD: Does that make it fraudulent?
AL: Not at all. What is fraudulent?
If you played those notes correctly once, then it’s not fraudulent anymore.
It’s when it’s manufactured electronically that it becomes fraudulent.
BD: [Playing Devil’s
Advocate] But assembling it from several different takes is not
AL: I don’t think so, because on Monday night
you could have played that passage terribly, but on Tuesday night that
audience could have heard the passage right, which is the same thing as
a recording session. You have several goes at a passage. It’s
just like having four performances in a week.
BD: But what if you never get it all right
AL: Then, hopefully you won’t release the
record! [Laughs] One hopes that you’re not going to make
a record of something you can’t get all right at least once. There’s
only one record out of thirty-odd records that I’ve made that I’m embarrassed
about, and it shouldn’t have been done. I’m not going to tell you
which one, but don’t play it! [Both laugh] I just don’t think
it works artistically. But every other record that I’ve made
— even the ones where I play piano, and God knows I’m not
the most perfect piano player in the world — I
can look at myself in the mirror and not feel embarrassed or worried that
someday the true story will come out. [Laughs, and says surreptitiously
“Rumor has it Litton needed 600 takes to get Tchaikovsky
symphony in can.”] There’s nothing like that.
But really, it’s more a question of wanting to be able to listen to that
record and hear it as perfectly as possible. I don’t want to be sitting
there going, “God, I wish we’d gotten that bar together.”
Why not work a little bit harder to make sure it happens? That’s the
beauty of having recording sessions. Now in this day and age, with
the financial constraints on performing organizations all over the world,
you don’t have that many sessions to get it done. Usually you have
enough time to play everything two or three times, and that’s it. Especially
in orchestral music, the days of manufacturing things to the last note
are impossible. With solo performances, that’s a completely different
ball game, and that I couldn’t begin to address. I know a pianist
that does it note by note, and I can’t relate to that myself.
But when you’re dealing ninety or a hundred players in an orchestra, you
really want to get it as perfectly as possible in the time that you’ve
got, and that’s what the beauty of recording is.
BD: Not in recordings but in performance,
you do ever hit perfection?
AL: It’s a different kind of perfection.
It’s a very interesting phenomenon, in that you can walk off stage
after a performance and think you’ve never given a better performance in
your life. Then you hear a tape of that performance, and you can’t
believe you were ever that impressed with it. There’s something about
a live performance, the now-ness, the feeling of being there that
is extremely different from a document that you take home and play again
and again and again. I can’t explain it. For example, I remember
a Shostakovich Ten I did with the London Philharmonic at the Proms
in Royal Albert Hall. I was just so moved at the end of the performance,
and there were 8,000 people screaming their heads off. The Proms audiences
are so fantastic, they’re so enthusiastic, and I walked off stage, and
I didn’t want to come back out. I was just so overwhelmed by the
performance. Then, afterwards I listened to the tape and thought,
“Oh, it’s okay.” But
we were about to record it, and about ninety-nine per cent of everything
I’ve recorded has been performed first. It’s the only way you can
do it. There’s been the odd concerto that’s been rehearsed for broadcast
and also the studio recording. When we got to the recording sessions,
I was really thrilled to have had that tape, which
is a BBC tape because all the Proms are broadcast on the radio. So,
I listened to it and analyzed it, and decided what would not work as a
repeated listening experience. So, that’s what I went for in the recording.
BD: Is it more than just your different perspective
— being away from it rather than being in the middle
AL: I don’t know. That’s basically it.
When you’re in the middle of it, you have a very different perspective
from being detached. It’s like being a writer. If you write
a book and put it away, then come back to it and read it again, you wonder
why you did this. It’s the ‘next
morning syndrome.’ You wake up the next morning,
look at it and think maybe not. A lot of analysis and self- exploration
is really necessary.
BD: What advice do you have for younger conductors
AL: I’d just like to share what was told to me
when I was fifteen. I decided I wanted to be a conductor when
I was ten, but obviously there are not too many opportunities. I
was blown away by Leonard Bernstein, who was conducting the Young People’s
Concerts for the New York Philharmonic back then, and I decided I had had
enough of this piano playing, and just wanted to be a conductor. But
it was when I was fifteen that I made appointments with two different conductors
who I respected enormously, and still do. One was a younger conductor
and one was an older conductor. The younger conductor said the most
important thing is knowledge, and the older conductor said the most important
thing is experience. At that tender age I figured out that they were
both right. The most important thing is knowledge and experience,
and so my advice for a young conductor is try to get both as quickly as
possible. That’s really the best answer.
BD: What advice do you have for concert audiences?
AL: Come and enjoy it. It’s a fantastic
* * *
BD: Where’s music going today?
AL: [Laughs] You believe in these tough questions!
[Thinks a moment] We’re very much at a transitional stage.
Now we are in a position where we must educate people to appreciate music.
Even our parents could receive a fundamental education from the school
systems, in which kids today no longer even have a glimmer of hope in
receiving. We have to somehow keep music alive by interesting people
and maybe getting a Pied Piper out there to convince people that this
art form deserves to live, and it’s happening. There are plenty of
young people in subscription audiences of major orchestras around the country,
but it’s hard work, and you can never let down. It’s got to keep
going. New music is another challenge because there’s so much of
it written and there’s so little of it that’s good, but that has always
been the case.
BD: Then someone like you has to sort through
AL: Oh, yes, all of us. It’s a group responsibility.
Occasionally somebody has the winning formula. David Zinman
and Henryk Górecki’s
Third Symphony [which also featured Dawn Upshaw] worked
fantastically well for them. I admire, for example, a lot of the
work of John Corigliano.
He’s become a huge success before I was in a position to do anything
about it myself, but that’s fantastic.
BD: Will you be hunting around for a Texan
composer, or an American composer from the Southwest to try and champion?
AL: I’ll just be hunting around for a composer
to champion. The responsibility is to keep the music alive and
fresh, not scaring away the audiences but also making the music still
happen and making sure that it can continues. The next Beethoven
or Stravinsky has got to be out there. It’s just a question of
BD: Do you have any advice for the next Beethoven
or the next Stravinsky, or just for the next composer of a piece that
AL: The thing that I like most in the music
is emotion. Often, I find that composers in this day and age seem
so obsessed with technical things — effects
and noise — instead of getting back to what really
great music, or even popular music, is all about — which
is emotions and human feelings. The composers that have made a success
now have hit that again, and have been brave enough and old-fashioned enough,
if you will, to have set down their feelings. That would be my advice.
Don’t be afraid to do it! It’s okay.
BD: Do you find this as a general trend
— that the pendulum is swinging back away from over-technical
AL: Oh, yes, I definitely feel this.
We’ve seen several examples of it recently — Taverner,
Górecki, Corigliano. They’re all very different composers,
but it’s all going much more towards the heart rather than harsh,
BD: Even someone like David Diamond?
AL: Absolutely, who I studied with, by the
way. He is a great theory teacher.
BD: One last question. Is conducting fun?
AL: That’s the greatest fun I know, really.
Conducting is a joy. Sometimes I feel guilty because I’m doing
exactly what I’ve always wanted to do, and somewhat succeeding at, and
that’s frightening. I sometimes wonder why am I so lucky and so many
people aren’t, but what’s so fun about it is the music, actually. What
blew me away when I was a little kid and heard Bernstein and the New York
Philharmonic, where the colors that an orchestra could make, and still,
to this day, I marvel at what that collective experience is like, and what
the possibilities are when you’ve got that many players playing all these
instruments well, and what you can do with that. That’s where the
fun part is. I also like working with people. One thing I
knew was that I would never be able to be successful concert pianist
because of the loneliness factor. I can’t stand being alone, and
one of the great things about being a conductor is that you are working
with people all the time. Every day that you do your job, you’re
working with people, and I like that. That’s my approach to rehearsals
as well. It’s a work experience, a working together. Sometimes
people comment that my rehearsals are very relaxed, and I hope they are.
Tension is for the performance.
BD: Good luck with these performances, and I wish
you the best in Dallas. Thank you for speaking to me today.
AL: Thank you.
© 1993 Bruce Duffie
This conversation was recorded in Chicago on August 20, 1993.
Portions were broadcast on WNIB the following year, and again in
1999; on WNUR in 2005, and on Contemporary Classical Internet Radio in 2006,
and 2011. This transcription was made in 2018, and posted on
this website at that time. My thanks to British soprano
Una Barry for her help in preparing this website presentation.
To see a full list (with links) of interviews which have been transcribed
and posted on this website, click here.
winning broadcaster Bruce Duffie was with WNIB, Classical 97
in Chicago from 1975 until its final moment as a classical station
in February of 2001. His interviews have also appeared in various
magazines and journals since 1980, and he now continues his broadcast
series on WNUR-FM.
You are invited to visit his website for more information about
his work, including selected transcripts of other interviews, plus
a full list of his guests. He would also like to call your attention
to the photos and information about his grandfather, who
was a pioneer in the automotive field more than a century ago. You
may also send him E-Mail with comments,
questions and suggestions.