New York City Ballet opened in 1948 with a triple bill of ballets choreographed by George Balanchine to music by Bach (“Concerto Barocco”), Stravinsky (“Orpheus”) and Bizet (“Symphony in C”). Ever since, it has had the most distinguished musical repertory of any of the world’s ballet companies. Stravinsky composed and conducted for City Ballet; it regularly presents commissioned scores.
The conductor Andrew Litton, 63, has been the music director of City Ballet since 2015; this winter season begins Jan. 17 and includes the premiere of a new ballet on Jan. 26 by Justin Peck, “Copland Dance Episodes,” to various Aaron Copland scores. Training at Juilliard in the late 1970s and early 1980s, he watched the company while its founding choreographers George Balanchine and Jerome Robbins were still active.
“That’s when I first saw the Balanchine-Stravinsky ‘Symphony in Three Movements,’” Litton said in a recent interview. “The music is so great, but it’s so difficult for an orchestra that it just doesn’t get played much in concert — it demands too much rehearsal time for the players — except at New York City Ballet, where the orchestra are Stravinsky specialists who are used to it.”
As a solo pianist in those years, Litton accompanied the star dancers Rudolf Nureyev, Natalia Makarova and Cynthia Gregory. His conducting career, however, led him away from dance. In 1982, he became the youngest person to win a BBC conductors’ competition. He then became the resident maestro for symphony orchestras in Britain, the United States, and elsewhere, and conducted for several top-level opera companies. (“Opera is my first love,” he said.)
Litton, born and raised in New York, has a family background that is Russian-Jewish; he feels intimately connected to a number of Russian composers from Tchaikovsky to Shostakovich. City Ballet’s repertory abounds in Russian music that is rarely played in the symphony hall. For Litton, part of the lure of this job was the chance to conduct these superlative scores.
What does it involve to conduct an orchestra and a ballet company at the same time? And what other functions does the music director of a leading ballet company have than to conduct? Litton and I spoke at length recently in the vast music room of his home in Scarsdale, our conversation touching on these questions, on ballet and opera, symphony and chamber music, scores from Bach to Copland, Mozart to Cole Porter. Litton’s enthusiasm for a wide range of music bubbled over, his conversation larded with remarks like “I adore this,” “I’m such a fan,” “It turned out to be a miracle.”
What follows are edited excerpts from that conversation.
What are the challenges of conducting music you already know well for a ballet company?
I began at City Ballet with a boss, Peter Martins [the company’s leader from 1983 to 2017], who encouraged me to set the tempo. When I tried to follow dancers, he’d say “No — that’s for ABT!” [American Ballet Theater].
And, when I took the job, I found my wonderful conductor colleagues Andrews Sill and Clotilde Otranto very kindly had annotated the scores for me, indicating “Lights Up — Go” and all the tempos. That was an invaluable help.
One of the things I’ve discovered in this job is that on a first night, everybody’s nervous, so take things carefully. By the third performance, you can really go! — taking it faster. In one performance in the fall season, Jonathan Stafford [City Ballet’s artistic director] told me I was being too kind on the dancers in taking one piece of the music relatively slowly, and that I should speed it up. He was right. I’ve already learned where they need something faster than they think they want it. Everything depends on the night, though.
For dancers, nothing is more vital than tempo, but that, alas, is why ballet companies take many scores slower than called for. What about City Ballet?
One of the central rewards of this job is that, on the whole, Balanchine [the company’s chief choreographer, teacher and reason for being from its inception until his death in 1983] really knew what the proper tempo was. By “proper tempo” I mean something close to what the composer can be said to have in mind. With much 19th-century music, we can’t tell about tempo. Balanchine understood that, and he respected the tempos he grew up with; he was a very fine musician — and that made the difference. Where the composer did indicate a tempo, Balanchine almost always respected that.
There are a few interesting exceptions, where Balanchine hedged it a bit and where you can’t take the tempo that the score requires. The inner movements of “Stravinsky Violin Concerto” [which returns on Jan. 17] for example, are far slower than the score; and they’re slower than any previous account of the music we know.
In Balanchine, what is it like to handle the divergences between the rhythm of a musical score and the dance rhythm?
It’s very hard to explain to musicians who don’t know ballet, but “One” is everything to a dancer — even though it may have nothing to do with the “One” in the score. [City Ballet dancers, like many around the world, tend to learn their dances with counts that establish the choreography’s rhythmic units.] Sometimes it’s halfway through a musical measure. So the disparity between what the dancers are doing and what the musicians are playing feels like a form of dyslexia. Balanchine could not figure out the counts for “Symphony in Three Movements” until two weeks before the premiere. One day he came in beaming, because he’d figured them out. But the “Symphony in Three” correspondence between music and dance, crazy to analyze beat by beat, is strange, complex and thrilling.
Do you see the counterpoint that Balanchine establishes with his “Symphony in Three Movements” choreography?
Absolutely. I was desperate to conduct “Symphony in Three.” The music doesn’t get done in concert.
That’s why I’m so grateful to Balanchine that we can perform this piece — because it deserves to be heard. And the choreography is superlative. I find that Balanchine’s Stravinsky ballets made after Stravinsky’s death in 1971 are even better than the more famous ones he made during Stravinsky’s lifetime.
You’re a Tchaikovsky specialist. How do you feel about those scores in which Balanchine reorders musical movements (“Serenade,” “Mozartiana,” “The Nutcracker”) or cuts them (“Diamonds”)?
Once you accept the fact that you’re changing anything, then you might as well go ahead and change it. It’s no longer Tchaikovsky’s Serenade for Strings, it’s Balanchine’s “Serenade.” He reverses the third and fourth movements, and thereby completely changes the expressive nature of the piece. And in the second movement, the Waltz, he repeats one section where neither the score nor performance tradition has any repeat! Yet I think Tchaikovsky would have looked at Balanchine’s ballet and gasped in admiration: it’s like rewriting history.
I’m so looking forward to sparring with “The Sleeping Beauty” this winter [Feb. 15-26]. I feel I’m much readier for it this time. That’s the most difficult ballet for a conductor, far more than “Nutcracker” or even “Swan Lake.” The ballerina has so many demands, rightfully so. I liken it to bel canto opera, where it’s all about the pyrotechnics of the soprano. Woe betide the conductor if he comes in too early after the ballerina’s pirouettes.
What was your role in the new Justin Peck ballet set to Copland?
He’s combining various Copland pieces into one larger whole — not dissimilar to Balanchine’s way of combining two Ravel waltz pieces in “La Valse.” I sent him various recordings to suggest what he might consider.
He’s very open. When he made “Solo” during the pandemic — for the dancer Anthony Huxley, to Samuel Barber’s Adagio for Strings — we did it to just the original quartet version. This season, when we knew it was coming back into repertory, I sent Justin a recording of the score with full string section playing, to say, “Please, Justin, now let’s use all our strings.” He agreed.
In circumstances like that, I feel properly music-directorial, because I’ve made a positive musical change. In a 2,500-seat auditorium, having a full string section play it is far more effective than a miked string quartet.
How does your job as music director work with other premieres?
Mostly what happens at City Ballet is that Jon Stafford and Wendy Whelan [the company’s associate artistic director] choose a choreographer. And the choreographer gets to choose the music.
I’ve had to hammer home that we have a 60- to 80-piece orchestra at the choreographers’ disposal. Unfortunately, the young and ambitious choreographers who are being hired — justifiably — often don’t incline to orchestral sound.
So that’s a challenge. With my team, I try to make it work. In the case of the recent ballet score that Solange Knowles was commissioned to write [for Gianna Reisen’s “Play Time” at the fall fashion gala] — it’s very successful — we had an arranger help with certain things to make it work for the orchestra.
Still, most of my work as music director lies in preparing the orchestra in how it’s going to play old scores as well as new.
The moment you began conducting at City Ballet, the orchestra started to sound different. Two immediate changes were your stronger use of portamento (instrumental slides or slurs between some individual notes) and a fuller string sound. These were deliberate?
Absolutely. A bête noire for me has become sustaining notes. So many wonderful players, especially brass players, come out of the conservatory with terrific skill in articulating notes — but they don’t sustain a long line. The classic example is the opening of the “Nutcracker” Waltz of the Flowers, which is written for four horns. Each note is tongued, but it’s a lyrical line. So it took me three years to get them to phrase the line not as a series of short, separated notes, but as a flowing phrase with precisely articulated notes.
One of the fun things about this job is that you don’t have to worry about drowning the singers. I spotted at once that many of the orchestra players weren’t using the full bow. But we have the opportunity to play these concert pieces like a symphony orchestra. We’re getting there!