Corrections or additions?
This article by Elaine Strauss was published
in U.S. 1 Newspaper on February 25, 1998. All rights reserved.
NJSO’s Homecoming for Hugh Wolff
Hugh Wolff ‘s return to New Jersey is, in part the
homecoming of a successful member of the family. As music director
of the New Jersey Symphony Orchestra (NJSO) from 1985 to 1992, when
he left for the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra (SPCO), he sought out
new horizons for the NJSO. During his tenure, he began a regular
of New York concerts at Carnegie Hall, inaugurated the orchestra’s
Pops series, and almost doubled the number of performances by the
orchestra. Under Wolff both the number of subscribers and the earned
income of the orchestra increased by about 50 percent, and the
made its first commercial recordings.
Interviewed by telephone from Cincinnati as he toured with the SPCO,
he seemed eager to catch up with the fortunes of the NJSO since his
departure, and try out his baton in the New Jersey Performing Arts
Center (NJPAC), Newark’s bid for equality with Manhattan in music,
theater, and dance. "It’s something we all worked hard on and
dreamed about back then," he says. " Last time I was there
it was just a big hole in the ground."
Wolff conducts the NJSO in New Brunswick’s State Theater, Thursday,
February 26 at 8 p.m.; and at Trenton’s Crescent Temple, Friday,
27 at 8:30 p.m.; as well as performances at NJPAC in Newark, Saturday,
February 28 at 8 p.m., and Sunday, March 1 at 3 p.m. The program
of Aaron Jay Kernis’ "New Era Dance," a New Jersey premiere,
Aaron Copland’s Concerto for Clarinet and Orchestra, and Ludwig van
Beethoven’s Symphony No. 6 ("Pastoral"). Karl Herman,
clarinetist of the NJSO, solos in the Copland piece.
Wolff notes that this cluster of NJSO concerts embodies the
pattern he most likes. There is a new work (the Kernis), a piece in
which a musician that he respects solos (the Copland concerto with
Herman), and a selection by Beethoven, a perennial favorite of
Indeed Wolff’s first concert upon undertaking his full conductorial
duties in New Jersey consisted of a recreation of the 1808 concert
where Beethoven introduced his Symphonies No. 5 and 6.
The new Kernis work, "New Era Dance," says Wolff, "is
a good concert opener. It’s a take off on `West Side Story.’ I like
Kernis’ energy, the melodic aspects of the piece, and its color."
This is a piece that belies the strenuous efforts musicians must make
to ready it for performance. "It’s easy to listen to," says
Wolff. "It’s very difficult to play." Kernis’ accessibility
comes through on a new Argo CD, nominated for a Grammy, where Wolff
Conducts the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra in Kernis’ Second
Symphony, his "Musica Celestis," and his "Invisible Mosaic
When Wolff came to New Jersey in 1985, he was 31. After having served
an apprenticeship with Washington’s National Symphony Orchestra, the
NJSO was the first orchestra that he could call his own. Born in Paris
of American parents, Wolff studied piano with Leon Fleisher and
with George Crumb. At Harvard he majored in composition, studying
with Leon Kirchner and Leonard Shure. Awarded a fellowship to Paris
to study with Olivier Messiaen, he simultaneously studied conducting
with Charles Bruck, and determined at that time that he would focus
Although he abandoned composition, his compositional studies
influenced his conducting. Particularly revealing is Wolff’s
of how his Harvard composition teacher Kirchner presented a musical
work. Kirchner’s viewpoint seems to infuse how Wolff conducts.
would focus on the first 10 seconds of a piece," Wolff told
magazine. "Depending on the density and the importance of the
gestures in those first 10 seconds, you’d know whether it was going
to be a long piece, a short piece, a complex piece, or a light piece
. . . You had the sense that every piece kind of unfolded on its own
terms, and you had to find those terms."
"I think that what the public perceives as your conducting
he continued, "is in large measure determined by your physical
shape. I’m pretty slender, but I have very long arms and big hands,
and so I get this sort of praying mantis or bird kind of posture!
There’s nothing I can do about that. Being long armed, I sometimes
have to remind myself to not cover too much ground."
Wolff’s conducting philosophy is exemplary in its
for the instrumentalists he leads. "The age of tyrannical
is long past," he says. "I was never part of that. If you
can’t maintain good relations with the musicians, you can’t play music
with them. It’s part of the job description." Modestly, Wolff
declines to take credit for seeing the NJSO through a crisis period
when, to some observers, it appeared that his charisma kept the
playing, despite the absence of a contract, and in the face of
unsettled fiscal weather in the arts in New Jersey. "The musicians
are good," says Wolff about the NJSO, "in crisis and without
it. I don’t take credit for this. I don’t solve financial problems,
but I’m aware that the music director plays a role. My role, rather,
is to keep morale up."
Actually, Wolff sees his role as much more than cheerleader. "I
spend a lot of time just dealing with the things the players are going
to have a tough time dealing with themselves," he told interviewer
Royal S. Brown in 1992. "Primarily the balance and clarity of
the sound. Another level of involvement that I think has to come from
me is the style. Do you play Ravel differently from Dvorak? Do you
approach a phrase, do you approach a crescendo differently? And I
think that yes, absolutely, you do and must and should, and you need
to remind yourself about that all the time. I’m not shy about changing
composers’ markings. I’m not shy about crossing out a fortissimo in
a trumpet part and making it a mezzo-forte. It shortcuts the whole
When it comes to making career moves, Wolff acts with similar clarity
and purpose. When he left New Jersey for Saint Paul in 1992, he told
U.S. 1 that, having made a distinct contribution at the NJSO, he was
attracted by increased opportunities to tour and to record with the
Minnesota orchestra. For a time, he simultaneously was music director
in New Jersey and principal conductor in Saint Paul, but he declared
himself temperamentally unsuited to two directorships (April 22,
His expectations for Saint Paul were amply fulfilled, he says now.
He has taken the orchestra on tour for two to four weeks each year,
tallying up 10 tours of the United States and three international
tours. During his five or so years with Saint Paul he has made more
than 20 recordings, exceeding his expectations.
Curiously, as he returns to New Jersey, Wolff’s position in Saint
Paul parallels his leaving New Jersey. Since September, he has
been music director in Saint Paul and chief conductor of the Frankfurt
Radio Symphony Orchestra in Germany. He still believes that he is
not cut out for two directorships, and has decided, once again, that
it is time to move on. On February 12 he announced that he will not
renew his contract with the SPCO when it expires in June, 2000. "I
will have done 12 years in Saint Paul, well over 500 concerts. I will
have devoted more to Saint Paul than any other conductor, more years,
more concerts, and more recordings."
Wolff contrasts the Saint Paul and Frankfurt directorships.
two very different jobs," he says. "There’s very little
The SPCO, the only full-time chamber orchestra in the United States,
consists of 30 some members; Frankfurt has about 125. "I want
to concentrate on big orchestral repertoire," Wolff says.
In Frankfurt Wolff will be able to eat his cake and have it, too.
He is happy to further Frankfurt’s interest, despite its massive
in playing the Haydn, Mozart, and Schubert pieces that call for leaner
resources, and tend to be neglected by big orchestras. Indeed, Wolff
has already conducted the Frankfurt orchestra in pieces for small
instrumental forces. What you have to do, he explains, "is cut
the orchestra down to the size that you think is appropriate.
participates every other year in the annual Mozart festival in
in June. The orchestra is divided into two 50-player groups. Half
plays one concert, half another, on alternate nights. There are enough
players for two Mozart-sized orchestras."
Wolff is attracted to Frankfurt, also, because of its working habits.
"There is a big difference between Frankfurt and American
he says. "German orchestras schedule more rehearsal time, work
more slowly, and in more detail. They have about twice as much
time as American orchestras. I like that. You end up with a slightly
different product that way. German musicians want to go into an amount
of detail that some American orchestras would find excruciating. The
downside is that players come to the first rehearsal less well
than in American orchestras, where rehearsal time is at a
Wolff remains mindful of the advantages that American
orchestras, with their short rehearsal time have in preparing music
for performance. "American orchestras," he says, "bring
more finesse and knowledge of detail to the first rehearsal, and can
assimilate new pieces quicker." However, he foresees no problems
in Frankfurt. "Frankfurt has a long history of playing
Encouraging new music is a high priority for Wolff. "I do it a
lot. There’s no question about it," he says. "There are tons
of good composers out there, more than there were 25 years ago. This
is a good time for music. After the Saint Paul concert in Carnegie
Hall on January 30, which included the premiere of Kernis’ `Too Hot
Toccata,’ no fewer than five young composers came backstage to say
hello, composers I’d like to work with." Wolff brought Kernis
to Minneapolis for a three-year stint as the SPCO
Minnesota has considerable appeal for Wolff. One of his considerations
in leaving New York was having, in 1992, two toddlers, who he thought
could lead a more wholesome life in Minneapolis than in Manhattan.
On the verge of making Frankfurt his professional center, he’s not
sure that he will move the family to Germany. He now has three small
children, whom he is not eager to displace. He says his wife, writer
Judith Kogan, could work anyplace.
"I like living in Minnesota," Wolff says. "It’s very
the way the state government operates, providing social services.
There are gorgeous spots throughout the state. Minneapolis is the
ideal mix of city and small town. The Twin Cities have more than 2
million people. Chicago is seven hours away by car. There’s not the
New Jersey problem of the gravitational pull of New York City. People
know that the Twin Cities is all there is. Since it’s somewhat
Wolff admits that there is "a certain truth" to the Minnesota
depicted by Garrison Keillor on his public radio show, "Prairie
Home Companion." Keillor’s Minnesota seeps into Wolff’s
of more than 20 items. Taking its place along Vivaldi, Haydn,
and Stravinsky, is an item narrated by Keillor that includes "The
Young Lutheran’s Guide to the Orchestra," a parody of Benjamin
Britten’s "Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra."
His New Jersey experience, directing an orchestra with no fixed home,
has left a permanent residue with Wolff. "I learned a lot in New
Jersey," he says, "because of the shifting concert halls with
their varying acoustics, and their sizes ranging from 700 to 3,000
seats." My guess is that Wolff will find the new NJPAC singularly
agreeable. Its X-ray acoustics are a good fit for his X-ray vision
of how music is put together.
— Elaine Strauss
State Theater, New Brunswick, 800-ALLEGRO. $10 to $48. Thursday,
February 26, 8 p.m. The program is repeated at the Crescent
Trenton, on Friday, February 27, 8:30 p.m.
Corrections or additions?
This page is published by PrincetonInfo.com
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