By Dan Wascoe
When Andrew Litton returns to lead the Minnesota Orchestra June 1 and 2, he’ll bring to the podium three old friends—pieces he knows well but that seldom get performed in Orchestra Hall.
- Belshazzar’s Feast by Sir William Walton (1902-1983) was last performed in Minneapolis 41 years ago (1977), with Henry Charles Smith conducting. Performed by orchestra and a full chorus (this year the Minnesota Chorale), it recounts the Biblical story of a disembodied hand writing a dire (and fatal) prophecy about a disrespectful king on a palace wall—giving birth to the phrase, “the writing on the wall.” Litton’s recording of the work with the Bournemouth Symphony in England won a Grammy in 1995.
- Chichester Psalms by Leonard Bernstein (1918-1990) was most recently performed by the Orchestra in 1999 under Eiji Oue. It, too, will feature Biblical lyrics sung by the chorale plus baritone Christopher Maltman. Its rhythms and harmonies recall those in Bernstein’s West Side Story, but the psalms quoted in the lyrics are sung in Hebrew, not New York-style English. The piece was commissioned for a 1965 performance in England’s Chichester Cathedral.
- Fancy Free, also by Bernstein, was written for a ballet and evolved into the Broadway show On the Town. Segments were included in the soundtrack for Alfred Hitchcock’s Rear Window. The piece was most recently performed by the Orchestra in 2009 under Mischa Santora.
For Litton, who was artistic director of the Orchestra’s Sommerfest programs from 2003 to 2017, choosing a program can hinge on factors such as the acoustics of a performance hall, special anniversaries (Bernstein’s 100th birthday this year), the capabilities of an orchestra, and the sensibilities of an audience.
Despite the Biblical roots of the Belshazzar and Chichester works, Litton said religiosity was not the basis of his programming decision. More telling was his familiarity with all three pieces, and his unabashed admiration for Bernstein. He added, however, that his experience with a piece doesn’t mean every performance he conducts will be identical.
Conducting is “a constant evolving experience” in which Litton tries to discover “what a composer meant to do—being true to the composer.” When learning an orchestral work, he may first play it on the piano, reflect silently for a while to “get the concept,” then listen to recordings, especially of performances conducted by the composer.
That still leaves room for variations and interpretation, he said: “The composer’s version is basically a blueprint.” The conductor’s role is akin to that of someone moving into an apartment; the structure remains from tenant to tenant but each might change the wallpaper.
Walton, a British composer, is “a tough sell in the United States,” he said, because his work is less known. Litton would like to change that, along with works of Edward Elgar.
That’s not necessary with Bernstein, perhaps the most well-known U.S. composer. As a youngster, Litton attended one of Bernstein’s Young People’s Concerts in New York. The program included Respighi’s Pines of Rome, and Bernstein himself played piano.
“I became fascinated with him,” Litton said. He admired Bernstein’s animation, his “complete dedication to music,” and his desire to share that passion with his audiences. And because his compositions have endured, so will his legacy, Litton said, unlike those of many conductors who do not also write music.
Minneapolis, he said, is “renowned for inventive programs,” made possible by well-educated audiences. But he still found himself carefully planning Sommerfest performances because summer and winter programs are “very different.” Nothing too heavy in those warm, humid months.
To succeed with adventuresome programs, he said, a conductor must build and earn an audience’s trust—exposing them to new pieces in a way that is “not painful, or at least not for long. You don’t just clobber them over the head” with unfamiliar music. Similarly, a guest conductor must approach an orchestra “with caution.” If the musicians must learn a new or unfamiliar piece, for example, they might need more rehearsal time. Even then, “there are certain repertoires only (an in-house) music director should do” because he knows the abilities of the players and can help them “get to the finish line,” Litton said.
His 14 years of experience with Sommerfest leads him to believe that despite the rarity of the Walton/Bernstein program, “there are no challenges there” that its players can’t handle.
What should Minnesota audiences expect from the triple bill that Litton will conduct in June?
“Music is all so heartfelt and expressive” that he hopes listeners simply “sit down and forget about their day.”
He added, however, it might help to “read up on your Bible stories.”
Dan Wascoe is a retired reporter and columnist for the Minneapolis Star Tribune and performs with vocalist Baibi Vegners as Nuance/a duo.