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Andrew Litton in an exclusive interview with Marc Bridle


Andrew Litton, Music Director of the Dallas Symphony Orchestra since 1994, is one of a small number of American born conductors to head a major US orchestra. He is also one of a unique group of international conductors to have also headed a British orchestra - the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra. In this interview he talks about the differences in orchestral funding between the US and Britain, the future of music and the Internet and his aspirations for the future.

Just about to embark on a second European tour, he offers fresh insights into the music of Copland and Shostakovich, both of whom feature, in their respective anniversary years, in his forthcoming concert programmes.

On September 4th , Andrew Litton and the Dallas Symphony Orchestra begin their British part of the tour with a concert at The Anvil in Basingstoke. On September 5th they will play at the Proms and on the 6th travel to Symphony Hall in Birmingham before leaving for the Lucerne Festival.

 MB: The Dallas Symphony was the first major orchestra to broadcast a concert live over the Internet. Do you see the Internet as a revolutionary way of increasing interest in live classical concerts and what ideas do you have for using music on the WWW in the future?

 AL: The internet holds great promise for classical music. So many young people are frightened away from great music because of early peer pressure and non-exposure in schools. But the web offers chances for self-discovery. It will provide a platform for this art that can help eradicate the lack of exposure and bolster the truth that this is indeed an art form for everybody.

Nothing will ever replace the 'live' experience of attending concerts in ahall much like TV didn't stop spectators from attending sporting events. TVenhances the sports enthusiast's appreciation and I think the web can do the same for classical music. Not only can we broadcast our concerts, but also we can inform the listener with notes and information about the music and musicians in far greater depth than could ever be provided before. Unlike radio, web users can decide for themselves how much they want to explore whenever it is convenient. As the fledgling technology continues to improve, concert webcasts will truly allow people to 'attend' concerts all over the world without leaving their seats. The increase in exposure for classical music will only help.

In February 2001 Lowell Liebermann's Second Symphony is being broadcast in exactly this way. Do you see the Internet as a potential saviour for contemporary music when it is declining, or becoming less popular, in the concert hall?

 Actually it was broadcast in February 2000 and by all accounts it was a huge success. Besides providing potential exposure to a far greater audience, the web premiere reaped another benefit-it generated immediate response from a wide audience that totally overrode the view of our local music critic who panned the Liebermann, even though it got a standing ovation every night. The Web listeners responded with 'counter-reviews' which generated informed debate. No longer will critics have the published 'final word'. I see a great future in this for all performers and composers. The web will serve as an instant arbiter in musical debates. No longer will dissenting views have to rely on a letter to the editor of newspaper columns, which take 10 days to print if you're lucky, and by then everyone has forgotten the argument. Difference of opinion and controversy are healthy. They generate public attention, interest, and concert attendance. Contemporary music worth saving can only benefit.

Your years in Dallas have seen the orchestra achieve much neededfinancial stability. Compared with your time as chief conductor of theBournemouth Symphony Orchestra what lessons do you think British orchestras can learn from American funding programmes?

The most obvious difference between Britain and America in raising money for the arts, is that it has always been a tax advantage to be philanthropic in America and in Britain it has not. In Britain there has always been the feeling that the Government will take care of funding, and in America we learn to deal with virtually no federal support. The problem in the UK now is that the Government is becoming more and more 'American' in it's support of the arts and the arts organizations affected are struggling to convince the private sector that they need to be generous. Without a tax incentive, one must appeal purely to the hearts of one's public.

The most important single piece of advice that I can offer is that you have to make the local audience feel a sense of ownership in the orchestra. This not only helps your fund-raising but it also helps your marketing and public relations. The two most successful orchestras in Britain today, the LSO and the CBSO have achieved this and it is a fairly simple model to emulate. It often takes a visible figurehead (Rattle) and a great concert hall, but such luxuries are not the only solution. It requires a huge effort to convince all parties--local Councils, local businesses and wealthier patrons, that this is an indispensable art form of great beauty, that needs to flourish in order to keep a vibrant community, and that at the end of the day, an area with a world class orchestra is a more appealing place to live and work than an area without. It seems like a tall order, but with the right people in charge, it is eminently doable.

Compared with Britain, do you think conductors of American orchestras are much more willing to become involved in fundraising for their orchestras?

We are because we have to be. I would much rather be home pouring over my Mahler Symphony scores, but I recognize that if I didn't fund-raise; my orchestra wouldn't be able to afford the extra musicians that it takes to perform a Mahler Symphony! In my case, it's no hardship. I love to spread the word about the DSO and I enjoy meeting people. In the process I've made some wonderful personal friends. Some conductors who are introverted or not used to the American way might not find it so natural. In a certain sense, it gives you even more pride in the success your orchestra achieves, if you can give great performances and know that you've helped pay for them as well.

All American orchestras rely on 'endowments' to run. These endowments range in size from over $200 million down to nothing. With a huge endowment, an orchestra can actually do fascinating projects that might make the BBC envious, because even if you take a financial loss, the interest from your endowment can erase your deficit and still keep you running in the black. When I arrived in Dallas seven seasons ago, the endowment was $19 million. It is now well over $70 million. While we obviously have a long way to go before we can rest on our laurels, we are all proud to have come so far.

For your forthcoming European tour you have chosen to commemorate the anniversaries of Copland and Shostakovich in your concerts. Do you see any similarities between these two composers?

They are certainly both amongst the greatest composers of the 20th century. Both also completely captured and musically portrayed their respective countries better than anyone else. I love the honesty and the frank, earnest emotions in their music. I also love the drama of it all. Even though they both came from such different backgrounds and experienced such different lives, they wrote music that can appeal to anyone and on any level, depending on how deep you want to dig. On a personal note, I have a Russian background even though I am second generation American, so I have a great fondness for their music and love to perform it.

American composers are still under-rated in central Europe. How do you think audiences in Germany will react to Copland's Third Symphony, for many of whom it might still be an unfamiliar work?

It is a work that can appeal on many levels, as long as one does not have a predisposed prejudice against American music. It is a hugely impressive orchestral tour-de-force, it captures the wildly patriotic post war sentiment that was gripping America in 1946 and uses a musical language that is accessible as well as inventive. It is probably the greatest America symphony.

The two Shostakovich symphonies you have recorded in Dallas suggest to me that you are closer to Kondrashin than Mravinsky in how you approach his works. Do you agree with this?

I was a great admirer of Kondrashin, although I never heard him do either Symphony (5 and 8). In fact, I was going to study with him in Holland in the summer of 1981, but he passed away. My greatest early influence in all matters Shostakovich was my first and only boss, Msitislav Rostropovich. I was Slava's assistant for 4 years in Washington (1982-6) and learned so much about the composer both musically and personally from a man who was his best friend. I even met Shostakovich once when I was a kid during one of his trips to New York. Suffice it to say, that I am a huge fan!

Do you think Shostakovich's later symphonies are very much a product of their time or do you think his works carry an eternal message for mankind that will ensure Shostakovich's legacy is a lasting one?

 Shostakovich wrote the great Symphonies of the 20th century (not counting Mahler, since he really straddles the 19th/ 20th century dividing line). I think all of Shostakovich's music is a product of the time it was written and whatever struggle the composer was enduring both privately and publicly. He shares with Mahler this life/death struggle and his music reflects not only a desire to overcome adversity, but a real sense of longing for a different life. This panoply of emotions appeals to us today as performers and listeners and there is every indication that the trend will continue.

Look at the rise in popularity of the 4th symphony. There was a time when no one would touch that thorny work and now everyone is playing it.

Shostakovich's Eighth is a C minor work. Do you see parallels in this symphony with, say, Beethoven's Fifth or Tchaikovsky's Sixth? Do you see the Eighth as a tragic work, or one that ultimately ends with optimism?

I think the 8th is an immensely tragic work that depicts with horrifying and gruesome detail, the results of war. Both Prokofieff and Shostakovich (along with arguably Sibelius), proved that C major (the ending key of Shostakovich 8th) could have all sorts of different meanings than the triumphant ending of Beethoven's 5th. In fact, the 8th Shostakovich has the saddest use of C major I've ever heard and the Symphony ends on a desperately tragic note. That is the only similarity with Tchaikovsky's 6th, because the tragic ending of that work is autobiographical and the Shostakovich is a view of world annihilation.

In May 2001 you will be performing in Dallas Mahler's Tenth in the completion by Carpenter. Why have you chosen this version rather than the Cooke? Do you generally see a completed Tenth as a great work in its own right - irrespective of whose performing version is being used? There are rumours that Rudolf Barshai has completed his own performing version of the Tenth. Is this something you might be interested in playing?

I used to feel just like Leonard Bernstein that the 10th Symphony was a one movement unfinished work, but that was before I had conducted all of the Mahler Symphonies. Now desperate for more Mahler, I have decided to give the completed 10th a shot. I chose Carpenter to be different. I think his solutions have a great deal of validity, and since we are recording the performances, it will be interesting for the public to have a modern recording of the Carpenter version to choose from. I would be fascinated to see Barshai's version, but for now we are committed to Carpenter.

Do you see Dallas' relationship with its composer-in-residence, Lowell Liebermann, as one essential to the Orchestra's developing influence in US music?

I hired Lowell because I think he is a wonderful composer and I wantedsomeone to help me identify the important new music we should be playing in Dallas. We provide him with a platform for a major new composition each year as well, so we all win.

As an American-born conductor, and one who heads a major US orchestra (still a rarity), do you feel there are additional pressures on you which a European conductor might not expect to encounter?

I don't know how to answer this. I think that to perform great music to the best of your abilities is hard enough for all of us without worrying about who comes from where. I know where you are trying to lead me with this one, but I refuse to go!!

What are your immediate recording plans?

We are recording Shostakovich 10 right after the tour and 6 two monthslater. They will hopefully come out on one release. We are recording the Mahler/Carpenter 10 and Das Lied this season as well. This will all be for Delos. Already in the pipeline, are Mahler 4,6 and 8, Liebermann 2nd Symphony, plus a Christmas album, all awaiting editing. We record live in our hall and I am very pleased with the results. I also await a final edit of the "Sweeney Todd" I recorded with the New York Philharmonic last May. This is coming out on the New York Philharmonic Special Editions label, hopefully within a few weeks.

What aspirations do you have for music in the new Millennium?

This is the subject of a doctoral dissertation, and I can't begin to do the question justice here. Let me just say, that I and many of my colleagues work very hard to ensure that there will be music in the new millennium, because we believe that it is an art form that humans need. Great art has been taken for granted for a very long time and unless we take our own stepsto guarantee that there will be future audiences as well as creators and performers, future generations will never know what they have lost and classical music along with all the arts and literature will be a small footnote in the history of our time. Great civilizations are remembered for their arts and their wars. My aspiration for the new millennium is that the arts flourish as never before.


Marc Bridle was in correspondence with Andrew Litton.

© Marc Bridle Music on the WebUK August 2000

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