Andrew Litton, Singapore Symphony Orchestra’s new principal guest conductor, is humbled by the power of music

Orchestral conductor Andrew Litton has worked with the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra, Dallas Symphony Orchestra, Minnesota Orchestra and the Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra, among others.
Orchestral conductor Andrew Litton has worked with the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra, Dallas Symphony Orchestra, Minnesota Orchestra and the Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra, among others.PHOTO: J. SHERMAN

Andrew Litton, the Singapore Symphony Orchestra's new principal guest conductor, says it is a blessing to be able to make music, which has the ability to change lives and inspire people


American orchestral conductor Andrew Litton's life is constantly in flux and that is just how he likes it.

Over his 35 years of wielding the baton, he has enjoyed stints with renowned orchestras including the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra in Britain, Dallas Symphony Orchestra and Minnesota Orchestra in the United States as well as Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra in Norway.

In 2014, he surprised many by going off the beaten track to assume the role of music director of the New York City Ballet.

This year, the 58-year-old is set to leave his post as music director of the Colorado Symphony to take on the mantle of principal guest conductor at the Singapore Symphony Orchestra (SSO). Starting in September, he will work on up to four projects each season, for three seasons, with the orchestra.

Despite his extensive experience, Litton's attitude remains humble and collaborative towards the musicians he leads.

Speaking to The Straits Times over the telephone, he recalls a formative moment in 1982, when an orchestra member approached him after his first conducting experience.

"My dressing room door swings open with a bang and in walks this second violinist, who gets right in my face and says: 'You're pretty good. But do not forget that the collective knowledge and experience of everyone on stage will always be far greater than yours.'"

Her view, though unsolicited, went on to become one of Litton's grounding principles and he has approached every conducting experience with great respect for the players.

"As conductor, you are given the right to dictate the tempo, volume and the little details. But it takes earning the trust of the musicians to create something greater. That trust means that you cannot walk into a rehearsal wanting to do everything your way," he says.

1 How do you feel about being invited to be SSO's newest principal guest conductor?

Deeply honoured. It's rare when you have a special experience between the conductor and an orchestra. That was the very thing that happened with Singapore the first time I went over.

This past October was my second time conducting the SSO and I left feeling like I had made new friends and the musical experience was very positive.

So you can imagine how excited I was when the feelings were reciprocated and they called me about a position.

2 This will be your first experience as a symphony orchestra conductor in Asia. Do you plan to experiment with Asian music or select pieces with distinctly Asian influences during the season?

I would love to learn about Asian music because I really know very little.

One of the fun things about being in Bergen was that we played a lot of new music, it was an experience that deepened my exposure to Norwegian and Nordic music and I remember doing seven or eight new pieces a year.

3 Reflecting on your 35-year career, what has been the biggest takeaway?

I think learning to be humble before the power of music. Music has the ability to change lives, to make things better, to inspire people, to fill them with hope and to do so many things that words cannot.

The biggest takeaway is to never take that power for granted. Every day when you're blessed enough to stand on the podium and make music with your colleagues - that's just a blessing.

4 Let's go back to 2014 when you were asked to be the music director for New York City Ballet. What was the transition like?

The ballet job is new, I've been with NYC Ballet for only 11/2 years and it is a very steep learning curve because, for more than 30 years, I've been accompanying sound and suddenly I'm accompanying sight.

Another challenge was learning the technical aspect of it, such as the terms for the various ballet steps. But I love it because when I look up from my podium and I see something that is basically perfection, it's so amazing. You also know that you are a spoke in the wheel that they can't do without because dance needs music.

5 How does it feel to be leaving your post as music director with the Colorado Symphony after almost six years?

It's always bittersweet leaving. We've had some great musical experiences. But, at the same time, that's the nature of what I do. You're never a conductor for life. It's healthy for there to be change and for conductors to move on to something new and for some variety too.

I was really happy with my run in Bergen, Dallas and Minnesota so I'm pretty good with long-term relationships. But after some time, it can get to the point where it is not fresh anymore.

6 You've worn many hats, from pianist, music director, artistic director to conductor. What has guided your career choices and where do you hope to end up?

Some luck. Sometimes being at the right place at the right time.

But in the last 15 years or so, I've felt very driven by turning to places where there's chemistry with the players and a sense that when you show up, you're continuing the work that has been done before. It's important to me because then there's a chance to build on something - the relationship. I've always loved doing different things.

7 How would you describe your style as a conductor?

What people have said in orchestras for decades is: You must really let us play. That may sound bizarre and passive because it is like you don't get involved, but I want to know what the player feels, whether it is a solo line or a melody. I want the player's heart and soul to come out because that's going to make a piece more meaningful.

When we get to the concert, I want everybody to go for it and take it, as they say in jazz.

8 How would you like to be remembered?

I would like to be remembered as a musician's conductor. As somebody who always tried to bring out the best from his players and always served the music first. I can't hope for much more.

Composers give us the art of the present and the future and to be interpreters of that music is what gives me the greatest pleasure. To be somebody who can bring to life those black dots on a white page, that's the greatest feeling.

I would like to be remembered as somebody who did that without any airs and graces.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 10, 2017, with the headline 'Humbled by the power of music'. Print Edition | Subscribe