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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

on conducting.

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

balance thing."

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


it’s self-sufficient."

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

Hugh Wolff Returns, New Jersey Symphony Orchestra,

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.

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