THE Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra makes its Edinburgh debut next week in a concert at the Usher Hall featuring that well-known piano concerto by Norway’s most celebrated composer – Edvard Grieg.
Equally familiar to Edinburgh audiences is the orchestra’s current musical director, Andrew Litton, who has been a regular guest conductor with all the major Scottish orchestras over the past 25 years.
So Litton needs little introduction, other than to recall that he began his career as principal conductor with the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra in 1988, before rising to international stardom in his native America as musical director of the Dallas Symphony Orchestra.
It was after Dallas that Norway beckoned. And for the past ten years he has nurtured the previously obscure Bergen orchestra, transforming it into one that is now more widely known and respected beyond its homeland than ever before.
I caught up with Litton last week in Belfast, where he was guest conducting the Ulster Orchestra, and reeling from news that his London flat had been hit by debris from the Vauxhall helicopter crash. “It’s ironic that my in-laws were on at me last week to be careful in Belfast,” he muses.
Litton initially played a little hard to get in response to frequent attempts by the Bergen Phil to secure him as their main man. “The very first time I guested there, I was virtually dragged to a place I had barely heard of, on top of which it was absolutely pouring with rain,” Litton recalls.
“Of all the things I’d done in my career, the places I’ve been, I thought this had to be most miserable. But when I opened my curtains the following morning, the sun was out, the snow glistening on the mountains. It was the prettiest sight. As I’ve since discovered, that’s Bergen: sun splitting the heavens one minute; torrential rain the next.”
As for his introduction to the orchestra, the impact was positive and immediate. “The very first time we worked together, I stood up, gave the preparatory beats for Shostakovich 5, and was hit immediately by such a powerful sound. It was love at first beat.”
Yet it took three approaches over successive years for the Bergen management to convince Litton to sign up on a permanent basis. Ultimately, it was a direct approach by the players themselves that won him over. “They took me to dinner to say they needed someone who could help them break the mould and take them in a new direction. What do you say to a mandate like that, other than yes?”
In time, Bergen turned out not to be the Nordic backwater Litton feared. “Everybody backed the incentive to raise the orchestra’s profile, which is something you can’t do unless you ‘take the village’ with you. I’ve had fantastic support.”
The results speak for themselves. Since Litton has been there, the BPO has issued 75 recordings and videos, on labels as diverse as BIS, Hyperion and Chandos. Worldwide exposure has increased hugely, with tours all over Europe and to the United States. “I’m particularly pleased to have taken the orchestra to the BBC Proms, and now to be bringing them to Edinburgh for the first time.”
But to what extent does Litton believe he has influenced the sound and character of the orchestra? “I could wax lyrical about it having a special sound, about it playing in a ‘Norwegian style’, but that’s not really what it’s about. We’ve worked very hard to develop an international sound, which makes complete sense when you consider that about half the orchestra is non-Norwegian.
So is half of next week’s programme. Besides the all-Norwegian Grieg, Litton opens the concert with Bradford-born Delius’ Anglo-Germanic reflections of Norway – his orchestral crystallisation of Ibsen’s poem Paa Vidderne (On the Mountains) – and finishes with Richard Strauss’s epic tone poem Ein Heldenleben.
“Whatever we play, we play it without a distinctive foreign accent,” Litton explains. “It’s not like the Vienna Philharmonic, where most of its players are Austrian defending the Austrian tradition. When I asked someone in Bergen seven years ago what the Norwegian playing tradition was, he replied, ‘Right now, you are the Norwegian tradition.’”
But patriotic pride does play its part now and again, and for the Edinburgh programme the BPO will be joined by homegrown pianist Christian Ihle Hadland in the Grieg concerto.
“Hadland is one of Norway’s finest upcoming pianists, destined to follow in the footsteps of Lief Ove Andsnes,” says Litton of the young Norwegian, who was recently appointed a BBC Young Generation Artist.
As for Grieg’s popular concerto – never quite the same since Morecambe and Wise made a skit of it – it serves as a reminder that one of Litton’s Bergen predecessors was none other than Grieg himself, acting as BPO musical director from 1880-82. Consequently, it’s a work that tends to feature regularly as the orchestra’s party piece. “In 2007 we performed it 21 times with 13 different pianists,” Litton says.
As for simple historical tradition, the Bergen Orchestra is steeped in it. It is one of the oldest orchestral bodies in Europe, founded in 1765 and still going strong. Litton is proud to be a part of that extraordinary timeline, and recently extended his contract to take his tenure up to 2015, when the orchestra celebrates its 250th anniversary.
“I’m a party animal,” he admits, having being in charge of both the Bournemouth and Dallas orchestras during their respective centenary seasons. “The 250th anniversary will be my final day at the office.”
But there’s a lot of ground to cover before that. “We have a Prokofiev recording cycle with BIS to complete, and a major tour of Germany next season. As for the anniversary season itself, it will hopefully include something big in London,” says Litton, clearly hinting at an anticipated return visit to the Proms.
Meanwhile life is busy for the man who combines his Nordic commitments, and a job as newly appointed artistic adviser to the Colorado Symphony Orchestra, with snatched visits to his home in Westchester, New York. “I like to pop in to see the wife and kids now and then, just to remind them who’s paying the mortgage.”
• Andrew Litton conducts the Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra at the Usher Hall, Edinburgh, on 31 January. www.usherhall.co.uk