Andrew Litton’s final Sommerfest is all about friends and favorites

Courtesy of the Minnesota Orchestra
Andrew Litton: "I’m proudest of the traditions I brought back. The Viennese Night always works. The chamber music. The opera."

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Sommerfest, the Minnesota Orchestra’s annual summer concert series, has been part of summer in the Twin Cities since 1980, when it was founded by Leonard Slatkin. In 1984, Slatkin brought in a fresh-faced young conductor named Andrew Litton to lead a concert of Viennese waltzes. Nearly 20 years later, in 2003, Litton was named Sommerfest’s artistic director. He and his family have spent three weeks here every summer since.

After 15 years, this will be Litton’s final Sommerfest. He has made it a feast of his favorite things: music he loves, performances by his good friends André Watts and William Wolfram, a chamber music concert (with Litton on piano), an evening of waltzes, and a concert staging of Richard Strauss’ opera “Salome,” something he has always wanted to do. Four dancers from the New York City Ballet, where Litton has been music director since 2015, are flying in for a performance of Gershwin’s “Who Cares?” with choreography by George Balanchine.

It’s all going to be so much fun, which is entirely the point of Sommerfest.

Feeling nostalgic about the end of the Litton era, we sat down with the maestro in his summer office at Orchestra Hall earlier this week.

MinnPost: Fifteen years is a long time. Where is your head? Where is your heart?

Andrew Litton: It’s time for somebody else to come in. But it’s bittersweet. I feel like I achieved almost as much as I had hoped to achieve, especially turning Sommerfest around financially. When I started, I was told, “If you don’t fix this, we’re going to ditch summer, and the orchestra will go to 44 weeks.” I was like, “Are you kidding me? Give me a little pressure here!” So I can feel good about turning it around financially.

From the general public standpoint, people leave Sommerfest feeling good, whatever we’re doing. There’s always been that sense with Sommerfest. I love the informality of the concerts, and yet the level of music-making is high. You can’t always find that. So from my perspective, it’s been an amazing time.

I’ve loved being able to do all of these operas. When I started, everybody was like, “No! Too expensive!” I said, “You’ve got to bring it back. A summer festival is the perfect place and time for this.” Sure enough, we sold them all out.

MP: What were your goals coming in?

AL: I just wanted it to be fun again. When I first came here in 1984 I was 25, and I was following Leonard Slatkin around like a puppy dog. [Slatkin and the orchestra] ripped through crazy amounts of music, much more than we do now. There was such a great spirit and energy. Everyone knew it was insane, but they loved it. I thought it was awesome and wanted to be part of it someday. Little did I know that 19 years later, I would assume the mantle.

I’m proudest of the traditions I brought back. The Viennese Night always works. The chamber music. The opera. And being able to get my buddies to come and play, like André Watts. It’s really been special.

MP: Watts had to cancel last year because of illness. I’m glad he’s able to return.

AL: Me, too. He’s such a dear friend. I owe a percentage of my career to him. In 1983, when I was Rostropovich’s assistant conductor [at the National Symphony in Washington D.C.], I was in New York visiting my girlfriend at the time and saw André Watts on Columbus Circle, waiting across the street. I didn’t have the nerve to go up and say, “Hi, Mr. Watts, I’m Andrew. I’m going to be your assistant conductor next week, and I’m looking forward to hearing you play.” So I just left him to it.

I get back to D.C. Monday night, the phone rings, and it’s the boss – Henry Fogel, the Kevin Smith of the National Symphony – and he says, “You’re on this week.” I say, “What do you mean, I’m on?” He says, “Rostropovich is sick.” Watts had it in his contracts back then that he could say no. He could have said, “Forget it, I’m not working with a kid.” I walked into the Kennedy Center on Wednesday morning, shook his hand, and we’ve been really good friends ever since.

There’s lots of history in this year’s Sommerfest. Bill Wolfram and I grew up together. He and I had the same piano teacher in the ’70s, and he always had the lesson before me. I told him a number of times our teacher would say, “Why can’t you play it like Bill?”

It’s really fun to go out, as it were, with people who are close.

MP: What were some of your best Sommerfest experiences?

AL: I absolutely worshipped the great jazz pianist Oscar Peterson since the day I discovered him on my 16th birthday. I started a jazz component in Sommerfest, which was then embraced by the orchestra enough that they made it year-round, and he came the first year.

It was 2004. I was so excited. His sidemen were all there, but no sign of Oscar, and it’s concert time. Apparently Northwest Airlines had a computer meltdown, and he shows up 2½ hours late for his concert here. I kept going to the audience to promise, “He’s coming! He’s landed!” He was wheelchair-bound at this point, so when he finally arrived, his wife pushed him to the edge of the stage and out he went. It was crazy. But it was just so thrilling to have gone full circle from being this groveling fan to actually being able to present him at my own festival. That was huge for me.

I’ll never forget that I got to present my buddy Vadim Gluzman playing the Korngold violin concerto. The orchestra didn’t really know the Korngold, and we had one rehearsal for this program, so I spent the whole time on the Korngold. The other piece on the concert was the Brahms First Symphony, which I spent 15 minutes on, maybe 12, and it’s 45 minutes long. So we just covered a few corners.

The Korngold goes very well at the concert, and the audience goes crazy because Gluzman is phenomenal and he owns the piece. Then we get to the Brahms, and it was maybe the most exciting Brahms First I’ve ever been a part of. I was as clear as I could be, trying to show my intentions, but it was very on the edge. Funny and scary. It got a fantastic review in the paper.

Another amazing thing was discovering great talents like Latonia Moore, who came and did “Aida,” and then she went and did it at the Met and the Royal Opera House. That was basically before she became Latonia Moore. We had her first. “Aida” is now her party piece.

MP: Was there anything you wanted to do that you didn’t get around to?

AL: No, I’m very happy. “Salome” was it. Wait – I lie. I really wanted to do Verdi’s “Falstaff.” That’s the only one of my favorite operas we didn’t get to. But it’s OK, we did so many others. “Bohème,” “Tosca,” “Madame Butterfly,” “Traviata,” “Rigoletto,” “Aida,” “Rosenkavalier,” “Fledermaus,” “Fidelio” – I can’t remember all of them.

MP: What was your worst Sommerfest experience?

AL: We’ve stayed all over town, at different places. One year we were at a new property down by the river, and that was the year the bridge collapsed. I remember going to get gas and looking up at 35W and thinking, “Why is it stopped? Such terrible traffic!” When I got back to the apartment, the news was on. It was awful.

There was a concert that night – Sarah [Hicks] conducting, with Ann Hampton Calloway – and Ann was great. Everybody was in shock, and she rallied the audience. She’s very spiritual and always has beautiful, meaningful things to say, and she made a lovely tribute. But that was my worst day of Sommerfest. The horrible feeling of helplessness.

MP: Did you get to know Minneapolis during your time here?

AL: Very much so. I’ve always felt here that I’m in a place where culture and art are appreciated. You can feel that as a visitor. It made a big impact on me 16 or 17 years ago, when I came to guest conduct one of the summer concerts. I was staying at the Hilton, looking at [Ravel’s] “Gaspard de la nuit” on the side of the Schmitt Music building, and it’s like – OK, this is a cool place. And the fact that it’s still there and nobody’s painted over it.

MP: So you might actually miss us?

AL: I’m going to miss you so much. But I’ll be back – that’s the cool thing. And I’m really pleased. Without just paying lip service, I think the Minnesota Orchestra is consistently one of the best orchestras I ever work with. To have had that joy for 15 years, of experiencing that level of playing and commitment, has been very special.

Sommerfest continues through Aug. 4, and Litton will conduct all of the remaining concerts, starting with tonight’s performance (Friday, July 28) featuring pianist André Watts and MacDowell’s Piano Concerto No. 2. On Saturday night, pianist William Wolfram will play Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No. 3, after Litton leads the orchestra in the Sommerfest favorite “On the Beautiful Blue Danube.” On Sunday afternoon, Litton and soloists from the orchestra will give an intimate concert of chamber music and film music by Fellini’s composer Nina Rota. Friday, Aug. 4 will bring dancers from the New York City Ballet to the stage for a Gershwin ballet. Sommerfest’s final concert – and Litton’s grand finale as artistic director – will take place Aug. 5, when the orchestra and soloists will perform Richard Strauss’ opera “Salome.” FMI and tickets.

Litton will return in June 2018 to conduct a classical subscription concert. FMI.

Wondering about the future of Sommerfest? According to the orchestra, “Our artistic leadership and musician committees are well into designing plans for future summer programing. We look forward to making a major announcement about the summer of 2018 this fall.”

This interview has been edited and condensed.

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