Thursday, July 10, 2014

Conductor Andrew Litton on his new recording, "A Tribute to Oscar Peterson"

The charming and in-demand maestro Andrew Litton – music director of Norway’s Bergen Philharmonic, music director of the Colorado Symphony, artistic director of the Minnesota Orchestra’s annual Sommerfest, and conductor laureate of Britain’s Bournemouth Symphony – has a not-so-secret side: he’s a huge fan of jazz giant Oscar Peterson.

A highly accomplished, Juilliard-trained pianist in his own right, Litton often conducts from the keyboard and enjoys performing chamber music. At this year’s Sommerfest, now under way, Litton will be the featured pianist for Brahms’ Trio in E-flat major for Horn, Violin, and Piano, Op. 40 on Sunday, July 13; for Prokofiev’s Sonata in C major for Cello and Piano, Op. 119 on July 20; and for Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue” on July 25. (Litton is known as an authority on Gershwin; he’s currently working with a panel of Gershwin experts at the University of Michigan to develop a critical edition of all Gershwin works.)

He’ll also play a late-night solo set on Saturday, July 12. After leading a concert of Viennese music in the main auditorium of Orchestra Hall, he’ll move out to the atrium, where a piano will be waiting, and perform selections from his first solo CD, “A Tribute to Oscar Peterson” (BIS, 2014). Released in March, recorded on a Bösendorfer Imperial (Peterson’s piano of choice), “Tribute” has already earned praise from critics including those who write about jazz and often don’t look kindly on crossovers. (Litton has made more than 120 recordings; all the others are classical, with orchestras or operas.)

Litton first became aware of Peterson when a friend gave him the album “Tracks” (Verve, 1970) for his 16th birthday in 1975. (Recorded in 1970, after Peterson had spent 20 years performing with trios, this is a solo outing.) Nine years later, in 1984, Litton met his hero in London. Their friendship developed while Litton was serving as assistant conductor of the National Symphony in Washington, DC (under Msistlav Rostropovich) in the mid-1980s and Peterson often came to perform at Wolf Trap, the NSO’s summer home. In 2003, Litton was named artistic director of Sommerfest, and the very next year, 2004, he brought Peterson and his trio to the Orchestra Hall stage. He claims it’s because he wanted to introduce a jazz component to Sommerfest. Or maybe he just couldn’t wait to hear Oscar Peterson play live once more.

I spoke with Litton about Sommerfest for MinnPost; excerpts are available there. Here’s everything he had to say about playing Oscar Peterson.

Andrew Litton by Jeff Wheeler
“You can imagine the thrill it was, having met Oscar for the first time in 1984, and in 2004 being able to present him here [in Minneapolis]. The tribute album came out this year, but it was actually recorded in 2012. On Saturday night, I’ll be playing the whole disc minus a track or two.

“It’s been really fun to relearn them. Bringing them back to my fingers has been a challenge. The most amazing part of the whole experience was once I got over the nervousness of trying to play like [Oscar], I started appreciating who he was and what he did. It’s one thing when you idolize someone and listen to what they do, but when you try to learn the notes as they played them, you get inside their brains. It gave me a deeper level of understanding and appreciation for the genius he was. It never ceases to amaze me.

“People have asked, ‘Are you doing a straight crib?’ That’s the starting point. Then you play things through enough, mess around with them, practice them, try things out and eventually they become your own spin on what the man originally did. My intent is to play the same notes, in the same order. Therein lies the challenge. He just spontaneously played these things, and I’m trying to re-create how he played them

“At times I thought, ‘Andrew, this is the most idiotic hobby you’ve ever had. I can’t play this! Impossible!’ Then you come back the next day with fresh eyes and suddenly it’s there.

“The thing that took longest was proofreading the various transcriptions I was using. I found some on the internet and they were dodgy and full of errors. It’s like you’re given the ingredients for a recipe [but not told how to use them]. Some assembly required.

“Some transcriptions are now being published by Hal Leonard. A whole book came out a few months ago. The entire ‘Tracks’ album has now been transcribed and published! Including ‘Give Me the Simple Life,’ the first cut, a life-changing moment for me. I spotted a mistake in bar 3. I closed the book and said no, I’m not starting another one now. Someday I’ll play it. Transcription is a special skill I don’t have.”

[Note: About that “life-changing moment,” Litton told the Minneapolis StarTribune: “I was blown away by this uptempo ‘Simple Life.’ I said, ‘He’s off the beat,’ but I started clicking along with it, and he’s not only fooling us that he’s lost it, but he’s absolutely on the beat. It was an epiphany, and I became a groupie.”]

“ ‘Tribute’ is my first and only solo album. It was great [to make it] but such a challenge. Part of the challenge was getting practice time.” [Litton spends much of his life on the road.] “Seventy-five percent of the time [when you’re conducting an orchestra], your soloist is a pianist. Each week, I would find myself in open negotiation with the soloist over who would get to play the piano backstage. Obviously, the soloist of the week has to have priority. 

“I thank a bunch of people at the end of my liner notes. I thank Stephen Hough. I worked with him for six out of the last eight weeks prior to recording the album. He was so sweet; he shared the piano. Not every hall is like Orchestra Hall, where there are seven pianos backstage. This is pure luxury here. Very often in Europe and elsewhere in America, there’s only the one instrument.” 

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