Conductor  Hugh  Wolff

A Conversation with Bruce Duffie


wolff Born in France October 21, 1953, while his father was serving in the U.S. Foreign Service, Hugh Wolff spent his primary-school years in London. He received his higher education at Harvard and at Peabody Conservatory. Between Harvard and Peabody, he spent a year in Paris where he studied composition with Olivier Messiaen and conducting with Charles Bruck. At Peabody, he studied piano with Leon Fleisher.

Wolff began his career in 1979 assisting Rostropovich at the National Symphony Orchestra.
In June 1985, he was the first winner of the Seaver/National Endowment for the Arts Conductors Award. Wolff served as Music Director of the Northeastern Pennsylvania Philharmonic from 1981-1986, and then the New Jersey Symphony Orchestra from 1986 to 1993. From 1988–1992, Wolff was Principal Conductor of the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra, and then served as its Music Director from 1992–2000. He was Principal Conductor of the Grant Park Music Festival from 1994–1997. From 1997 until 2006, he was Principal Conductor of the Frankfurt Radio Symphony Orchestra, and most recently (2017) at the Belgian National Orchestra where he is the current Music Director.

He is a frequent conductor at summer music festivals including Aspen, Tanglewood and Ravinia, and has an extensive discography.

In addition to his performing career, Wolff holds the Stanford and Norma Jean Calderwood Director of Orchestras chair at New England Conservatory where he is in charge of four orchestras and teaches graduate students in orchestral conducting.

Wolff lives in Boston with his wife, the harpist and author Judith Kogan. They have three sons.

--  Throughout this page, names which are links refer to my interviews elsewhere on my website.  BD  

We met in July of 1994, and knowing that his appointment as Principal Conductor had recently taken effect, I began with this gentle nudge . . . . . . . . .

Bruce Duffie:   How you like being Principal Conductor of the Grant Park Symphony so far?

wolff Hugh Wolff:   [With a broad grin]  Oh, it’s been fun.  I’ve been coming here for ten years actually.  It’s hard to believe it.  The first time I conducted Grant Park was in 1984.  I’ve come off and on every year since then, so it’s a situation I’m familiar with, and happy to be part of, and I’ve been even enjoying it.  It’s been fun to see the enthusiasm the orchestra’s been plunging in with, and I’ve purposely picked some interesting and probably somewhat challenging programs music that’s not entirely the most familiar, or the most played, but some that I think ought to get played.  So, it’s been a good experience.

BD:   Does the knowledge that you’ll be outdoors have any bearing on what you pick?

HW:   I’m learning.  [Laughs]  When you do enough, you begin to learn what works and might not work so well.  I’m always aware of the parameters of being outdoors, and amplification, and a certain amount of ambient noise, and helicopters and traffic, etc.  We did an all French program, and French music probably the hardest to pull of outdoors because so much of it is so soft.  But I tried not to pick the softest pieces of all
, such as The Afternoon of a Faun of Debussy, or something like that, which would be lost.

BD:   [With a sarcastic tone]  You could do it like a big band, and have the flute player walk up to the mike for his solo.

HW:   [Laughs]  We would like to think that the sound that we produce is amplified in as natural a way as possible, so you’re quite right
you have to tailor your programs for the site and for the audience.

BD:   Does your conducting technique change at all when you know there’s a lawn, and airplanes, and all this behind your back?

HW:   That’s a good question.  I don’t think so.  What does change a little bit is what transpires in rehearsal.  You spend less time on small details of balance that simply will not be effective.  Time that’s spent in that way is not effective in a situation like this.

BD:   So then what do you rehearse?

HW:   You rehearse more for ensemble and phrasing, the overview of the style
the bigger colors in a piece rather than the tinier details.

BD:   Do you resist the temptation to start doubling lots of sections?

HW:   Yes, I have.  I’ve noticed that it would be possible, but I’m not sure that would make much difference.  Doubling when there’s amplification can compound the problems.  Doubling works well in a large but enclosed space, or even a large concert hall.  Doubling enables the woodwinds to play with a gentler attack, and maybe get a bigger sound, but then you have the problems of blending and intonation when you start doubling.  In an outdoor setting, that might be magnified.

BD:   We’re talking a bit about rehearsing.  Is all of your work done in rehearsal, or do you purposely leave something for that inspiration of the evening?

HW:   [Laughs]  Here there is no time.  It’s so precious, and we’re preparing so many programs that with two rehearsals per concert it’s impossible to say that all of one’s work is done in the rehearsal.  You’re always thinking of new things to do in a concert.  In fact, yes, I’ll consciously leave details for the concert, but I know in rehearsal I simply might not have the time for a certain kind of detail.  But it’s the kind of detail I know I can change, or work on in a concert.  So there’s a certain amount of spontaneity in all of that.

BD:   Would the finished product be measurably different if you had six or eight rehearsals?

HW:   I suppose one would have to say it always would be, but the whole atmosphere of this Festival
playing outdoors, playing a variety of programs, playing at least two different programs a weekmeans that the programs are planned and prepared with that in mind.  Sure, it would be nice to have an extra rehearsal now and then, but I’m not sure that a whole lot of extra rehearsals in an outdoor setting would be particularly effective.  Part of what has made Grant Park work as a festival is this kind of excitement generated by a lot of music being prepared for big audiences, and a certain amount of the unexpectedthe weather, the noise, what have you.  The orchestra works well under those conditions, and it’s always expected those conditions.  Orchestras tend to adjust to their working conditions.  In Europe you have orchestras with lots and lots and lots of rehearsal time.  They tend to be orchestras that don’t sight-read as well, and aren’t as quick to assimilate music.  Here you have an orchestra that has to assimilate a program in just a few hours.  They’re very quick and very agile, and very eager to do that sort of thing.  So changing the working conditions radically would not necessarily change the way the orchestra works.

wolff BD:   Most of your concerts during the rest of the year are indoor concerts.  Does a longer amount of rehearsal time then make for better concerts?

HW:   It makes for different kinds of programs, too.  Obviously, more rehearsal will generally make for better concerts, but we have to bear in mind what the purpose of the Festival is
to bring a lot of programs to a lot of people.  Certainly, we must keep in mind that the kind of music that’s either very, very difficult to play or very, very difficult to perform, or even very difficult for the audience to assimilate in an outdoor setting is music we’re not going to be playing.  That doesn’t mean we don’t play unusual music or difficult music, but it means that the kind of music that needs extra special rehearsal attention, or is incredibly delicate, or needs extra audience-focus to be heard precisely is clearly not music that would be right for this Festival.

BD:   Is your balance between art and entertainment different in the summer festival than it is, say, in Saint Paul?  [Vis-à-vis the recording shown at right, see my interviews with Jennifer Larmore, and John Aler.]

HW:   Yes, it probably is.  The purpose of this Festival is concerts that are free to the public
and I think that’s really important to emphasize.  There are very few festivals left featuring a full symphonic orchestra and symphonic choir that are free.  The purpose of this festival is to reach the maximum number of people with a broad eclectic view of what our repertoire is all about.  It’s to invite people into the world of symphonic music and chorus, and maybe win a few converts.  It is also to entertain people before eating, or when they are enjoying the weather, the skyline, the lake, the breeze, and we’d be unrealistic to not draw all of that in.  That’s part of what makes the Festival successful.  It makes the setting unique and special.  That’s why people come.  But, in talking to audience members at any kind of pre-concert talks where there’s give and take with them, Ive found that there are a tremendous number of highly motivated, highly educated listeners out there who know a great deal about the repertoire, and who come expecting a certain amount of unusual programming at Grant Park, and come expecting to hear music at the highest level.  So, I need to find a way of keeping everyone happy.

BD:   How can you plan a program, or a series of programs, that will satisfy the real experts and also the first-time concert-goers?

HW:   That’s a good question, and that is precisely my challenge.  I point to my programs this year as an example of what I always try to do in programming.  I have a sense of wanting to play music that has not been played every year at Grant Park, so my first task was a fun task of going through the archives at Grant Park.  That’s sixty years of programs, and would include leafing through the material and seeing what’s been done a lot, and seeing what may not have been done very much, and then matching that with music that I think would really be fun, exciting, and popular
masterpieces, well-known pieces, or maybe slightly less well-known pieces by the great masters.  Take, for example, the Fifth Symphony of Dvořák, that we performed just this past weekend.  Here’s a piece that’s never been played in Grant Park, and is one of the lesser played Dvořák symphonies, but certainly one of the fine romantic symphonies.  Then I purposely made a focus this year on the works of Bernstein, and the works of Brahmsa recent American composer and an old master.  These two are wildly contrasting composers.  One couldn’t find composers with more different aesthetic in some ways.  With Bernstein we’ll do the Chichester Psalms and Dances from On the Town.  These are works that are familiar to the concert-goers at Grant Park.  They’ve been done before, but also the Serenade for Violin and the Songfest for Six Singers and Orchestra, which have never been done.  Those will be the kind of pieces that will really be fun in an outdoor setting, particularly the Songfest, with a very interesting group of American poems and six singers.  It is a piece with a lot of vitality to it.

BD:   Are you glad that the orchestral repertoire is so vast that you can chose from so many different pieces?

HW:   That’s exactly the point.  Even in a sixty-year-old festival, you don’t have any problem uncovering masterpieces that haven’t been played
or certainly haven’t been played in thirty years.  And this is a festival that also encompasses opera, and dance, and has been accompanying movies, and doing a whole variety of things.  You’re right!  In just ten short weeks you feel like you have more things to program than you can possibly cram into ten weeks.

BD:   So you think about next year during the current season?

HW:   Exactly.  Already I’m thinking, and I notice the Ives symphonies have not been performed.  The Second and Third symphonies could be a lot of fun.  The Second could be a big success in an outdoor setting, with all the popular American songs in it, and so forth.  That’d be fun to do.

wolff BD:   Do that on July 3rd!

HW:   Yes, and there I would have to plan some extra rehearsals.  It’s a difficult non-repertoire piece, always difficult to prepare if only partly because the Ives has never been properly published, never been printed.  The orchestral material is miserable.  I had a lot of experience with Ives.

BD:   You would need to at least come with parts that are corrected.

HW:   Yes, I have my own set of corrected parts, but they’re still very hard to read, and one can’t buy anything better.  But you always have to take these things into account, and understand what will make for a successful performance.

BD:   Might you go to the Ives Society for help with these details?

HW:   I’ve tried!  Ten years ago I first did the Ives Second, and I managed to talk the publisher into actually letting me have a set of parts that I could mark, because the rental sets were really in bad shape.  But it’s not financially viable for them to go to the expense of having an entire set of parts copied cleanly, proofread and printed, or even put on computer.  That time will come, but even the Bernstein Serenade [which he later recorded and is shown at left], which we performed recently, is still a very difficult for the musicians to read in the hand manuscript, even though the score is beautifully printed.  That’s a tremendous frustration.  All performers let publishers know, but I’m also aware that publishers are not in this for the giant profits of classical music.  So, one has to be tolerant of them doing their job as well.

BD:   When you’re setting up programs, you look at the sixty years of the Grant Park Festival.  Do you also take into consideration things that have been recorded a lot, or things that have been performed at the Chicago Symphony, or things that have gotten big television play lately?

HW:   Yes.  One of the pieces we added this year was the Górecki Third Symphony, agreeing that has a wide what they call a ‘crossover’ audience.  Maybe people will come to hear that, and then come back to hear something that’s classical, but they haven’t heard before.

BD:   So you use it as a hook to get them?

HW:   Of course!  Each program should have a hook like that.  If we’re going to do a piece like the Bernstein Serenade, which many in the audience have probably never heard and is somewhat a stringent work
although I think it is an absolutely terrific, delightful, easy to listen to piecethen you have the Dvořák symphony.  On another evening, you have something with the Bernstein Songfest, such as the Brahms Third Symphony.  So, you tend to try and have something familiar with something maybe a little less familiar.

BD:   Are we trying to get more and more audience all the time?

HW:   Yes.  Given the nature with no admission charge, and an extraordinarily generous unique level of subsidy from the Chicago Park District
essentially the City Governmentit’s incumbent upon us to reach the maximum number of people, and give the widest possible variety of programs for all tastes.  We have our baroque evening, we have our Zarzuela and La Vida Breve, the Spanish opera, and we have everything in between that I think would appeal to all tastes.  It’s important to bear in mind that in a public-subsidized festival like this, one cannot and one should not just do your favorite party pieces, or just your favorite esoteric branch of the repertoire.  As the Music Director, you have a responsibility to lay out a real ‘smorgasbord’ and present it to the publicnot all of which I will conduct, and not all of which will be music I would comfortable conducting, but all of which is music that should be available to the public in a free festival like this.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:   Let’s move over specifically to you and your repertoire.  How do you decide on which pieces you will spend the time to work and learn?

wolff HW:   As you suggest, the repertoire is huge, and I have long lists of things I’ve been dying to do, and also lists of things I’ve had a lot of fun doing, so I try to find a combination of pieceslike the Bernstein Songfest.  It’s a piece I’ve waited many years to conduct.  It’s not an easy piece to put together, requiring six soloists.  Here we have this extraordinary professional chorus, and we’ve drawn all six soloists from the local young-opera-singer-scene.  Many of them are members of the chorus as well, so that is something quite unique.  As I say, I’ve waited a long time to do that piece, so it’s a lovely opportunity.  Then there are pieces that I’ve done many, many times that I’ll do as well because I believe in them.  The Berlioz Romeo and Juliet excerpts, for example, which I did with the Chicago Symphony several years ago, and works that I just believe in and think that the audience should hear.

BD:   Do you enjoy going around from orchestra to orchestra to orchestra?

HW:   Yes, conducting is fun, but I do find that it’s more enjoyable, ultimately, to work regularly with one group.  I’m very much interested in music directorship and what that means, and particularly because of the choices of repertoire that are available to you.  I find that guest conducting is often a long, polite disagreement over what to perform, and that after all, you’re being asked by an orchestra to come and conduct, but you can’t simply say,
This is what I’d like to conduct.  You have to take into consideration what their Music Director wants, and so forth, and so on.

BD:   So, you submit a bigger list?

HW:   Yes, and often there’s a tremendous amount of give and take, and you sometimes end up with a program that you’re not really happiest with, not a program you would have programmed for an orchestra that you were in charge of.

BD:   How do you overcome that?

HW:   By not always guest conducting.  You don’t always accept the engagement, and I overcome it by keeping my guest conducting relatively limited.  Obviously, the majority of my concerts are with
Saint Paul and with Grant Parkas is expected.  Together that would form more than fifty per cent of the concerts I’d conduct.

BD:   Let’s stay with guest conducting just a little bit then, and then we’ll come back
Saint Paul.  When you get to an orchestra, maybe an orchestra you’ve not worked with before, how long is it before it is your orchestra... or do you try to make it your orchestra?

HW:   It varies.  You have to try to make something about the performance your performance, but you can’t realistically make it your own orchestra in one or two performances.  Three or four rehearsals and two or three concerts is not a way to make your orchestra.  I have orchestras that I visit almost every year, and you no longer feel like you are a Guest Conductor.  If you come back regularly, you get to know people, and you feel much more like you’re part of the family.  For example, I’ve been with the Toronto Symphony at least one or two weeks every year for the last five or six years, so over the years I’ve probably done thirty or forty concerts with them.  That tends to develop very nicely, and you get to know the orchestra.

BD:   Like coming back to an old friend?

wolff HW:   Exactly.  Sometimes, the first time out with an orchestra can be very happy and satisfactory, and other times it can be very difficult.  The approach one has as a Guest Conductor is different at the first rehearsal than the approach one has as a Music Director.  At the first rehearsal as a Guest Conductor, I spend a good deal of time just listening, not trying to shape the performance as much but just listening to see what the orchestra has to present.  I try to discover the orchestra’s sound and the orchestra’s approach, and see where that may mesh with my own.

BD:   Is each orchestra a possessor of a unique sound?  [Vis-à-vis the recording shown at right, see my interviews with John Corigliano, Joseph Schwntner, and Lukas Foss.]

HW:   Every musician’s sound is different, and every orchestra has different musicians, so inevitably yes.  That isn’t to say that every orchestra has a sound that has been focused or honed in a particular way, but it is to say that every orchestra is different.  It sounds different, and has unique sound characteristics simply because of the nature of it being an aggregate of humans that all play very, very differently.  It’s especially true when you listen to the woodwind and the brass soloists in an orchestra, because that will obviously define the color of an orchestra more quickly than anything else.  Then, if an orchestra has been beautifully trained, you have string sections that have characteristic colors and sounds and approaches.

BD:   So rather than trying to put your stamp on it, you try to bring out what you can?

HW:   You try to do a bit of both.  You have to be courageous to feel that you cannot necessarily change an orchestra’s tradition, particularly the great orchestras.  But the orchestras with the strongest traditions are also the orchestras that are most flexible, and are able to turn on a dime.  A really great orchestra can produce any sound asked for, including the sound they’re so familiar for with their Music Director.  This reflects the history of how they produce sound.  Then, the next morning, properly rehearsed they can produce a totally different sound for a different occasion in a totally different program for a totally different conductor.

BD:   Does your approach changes if you’re with one of these really top-level orchestras as opposed to a second-level orchestra, or even a less good orchestra?

HW:   I don’t know if one’s approach changes.  One’s end result in one’s mind is the same.  It’s just a question of how the orchestra’s time in rehearsal is utilized, and what needs to be focused on.  Sometimes you can go very quickly to things of the greatest subtlety at the highest level, and other times you really are working to clean up fundamental problems.  But generally, I tend to have an abstract vision of a piece of music in my head that would be the same regardless of the orchestra.  You always try to achieve something, and always try to set yourself goals at a higher level.

BD:   Do you achieve all your goals?

HW:   No!  [Laughs]  If one did, one would be pretty bored.  Part of the fun of ensemble music-making is the uncontrollable aspects of it.  If I could actually get every single player to do exactly what I wanted, I’m sure it would really be a pretty deadly experience, particularly for them.

BD:   So, there’s no such thing as a perfect performance?

HW:   I don’t think so, no.  As you grow older, and have the experience conducting pieces again and again now, obviously you change, and sometimes you change willfully.  You know you did it this way last time, but now you’re interested in exploring what happens if the piece is approached in another manner.  That’s certainly enriching for me, now that I’ve turned forty, and am going back to having done a great deal of standard repertoire at least once or twice, and in some cases fifteen or twenty times.  It’s nice to know that you’re going back to old friends, and you try to turn the sculpture and look at it from a different angle to see if that can produce a whole different feeling.  Sometimes you find that you’re completely changed.  You listen to an old performance and you think,
“My goodness, I wouldn’t do that again!  There’s no need to repudiate it, but just be completely different than what I thought about the piece back then.

BD:   Does the equation change when you’re making a record, and you can take the pieces and assemble a perfect performance?

HW:   The whole process of record-making is so much more than that.  One of the drawbacks in record-making is the emphasis on first and foremost that it has to be clean when you’re done.  For ensemble performances, that is purchased at the cost of spontaneity and visceral excitement, which probably sounds rather obvious.  I found that one of the hardest things for a collective group of players in a recording session is to play with the same level of risk-taking on the most fundamental level as they would in a concert.  The mike is on is, so you don’t want to mess up the sixteenth note.

BD:   And yet if you miss up the sixteenth note this time, you’ll get them next time.

wolff HW:   Yes, but to convince yourself, mentally, in the process of the recording session that you can play with the same abandonment, and verve, and putting the music right out there that you would at a concert, you needn’t have that microphone in your peripheral vision inhibiting your desire to be spontaneous.  That is very difficult for all musicians.  Maybe some people come alive with a microphone.  Maybe solo players can do that, but for ensemble players, no one wants to be the musician in the session that makes the bloop that means that everybody has to go back and do the next take.  So, inevitably people are being careful, and careful is the enemy of spontaneousness, and, in some ways, can be the enemy of excitement.  Even more, I find the very act of recording music compresses it, even with today’s extraordinary technology and equipment.  It compresses the range of expression, of dynamics, of even vibrations to some degree.

BD:   So why do you make records?  [Both laugh]

HW:   I don’t know!  We’re all driven by that desire to have that kind of wonderful, very permanent document.  On a more practical level, for the
Saint Paul Chamber Orchestrawhere we’ve been making quite a few records recentlyit’s a really important way to get our message out.  People that had never heard of us before now know of us, and that’s the price everybody’s willing to pay in order to leave your calling card to the entire musical world.  But, it’s an ongoing process learning how to make exciting records.  Sometimes it works, and sometimes you’re not always happy, but generally, I’ve been happy with the results.  You learn as you go, and I’m finding that some of the great artists spend twenty or thirty years making studio recordings, and at some point in their life they’ve said, “To heck with this!  Leonard Bernstein is a good example.  By the last ten or fifteen years of his life, he was making only live-performance recordings, and working under the kind of conditions that can make everyone happy with the results.

BD:   If you get one of the top orchestras, it’s not likely they will make too many blooping mistakes.

HW:   When you have four performances, and you have a patch-session after the fourth performance, then you can record live performances.  Kurt Masur with the New York Philharmonic is now leaning in this direction as well, and there are quite a few solo artists who are feeling the same way.  Even when a concerto is a live recording, a lot of artists sense that they can control the product.  Then, if it doesn’t work out, the record doesn’t get released.

BD:   Is this at all a product of the fact that a lot of old performance tapes are now available, and people are finding they’re so exciting even though there’s a blooper?

HW:   If you listen to the old recordings, they’re just filled with bloopers and ensemble problems, and things that didn’t work, like out of tune notes.  People have a whole different standard for those historical recordings.  If they heard the same thing on a modern recording, they would say they’re sorry they bought it.  So, I do think people have a double-standard.  It would be nice if people were much less judgmental about the technical side of recordings.  Here we are worrying about every note in studio recordings, and the very same piece has probably been performed on your subscription series, and broadcast live on the radio.  Anybody could have picked it up of they wanted to.

BD:   Does a special night in the theater always translate to being a special time when you listen to the tape again and again?

HW:   That’s a good question.  I don’t know.  I think so, but it may be that you’re listening with the memory of the actual event.  If you played a tape for someone who was not there for that special feeling, maybe there is some electricity that’s only there to the live audience.  [Pondering a moment]  Good question... it’s a kind of a metaphysical question in a way.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:   Let me ask another metaphysical question.  What is the purpose of music in society?

wolff HW:   Goodness!  [Laughs]  How much time have we got today?  [Thinking a bit, then responding]  I don’t know.  Music is one of those art forms, and who knows when it first began?

BD:   Probably by just beating on a hollow log...

HW:   ...and singing.  People somehow vocalizing.  Like a lot of ancient human activities, there’s clearly some sort of human need to do it, to express it, to be the expresser.  There has also developed parallel the person that listens, the person that watches theatrical events or sports events.  These are as old as humans, and there’s something that’s far deeper than any of us can know about the human spirit, and that is the way humans react to each other, and express themselves, and that does include music as much as language, and as much as a lot of other things.  It is a cliché for a musician to say a life would be inconceivable without music, but I’m not sure there are societies without music, and it does touch something much deeper and more fundamental than we can explain.  Who can explain why a song will move you to tears, yet reading the lyrics without the music might not?  What is it that it’s tapping into?  I’m not the one who can explain it, but I’m just very, very glad that it’s there, and that people are hungry for it.  People are hungry for music all across the musical spectrum.  Particularly today, you find people have music with them all around the clock.  They carry their little cassettes, they put their headphones on on the bus, and the train.

BD:   Can the all-pervasiveness of it be too much?

HW:   Yes and no.  If it reduces something that tries to be a really complex elevating transporting experience, yes, but not all music has to do that.  People do respond to music on all levels.  I had a mathematician college roommate who listened to music on headphones while he did mathematics problems.  I insisted that he use headphones, because if there’s music going even faintly in the background, I can’t concentrate.  Music distracts me because I’m drawn to the music.  So, people’s mental and emotional reactions to music work on all different levels of the conscious and subconscious.  But if we’re talking about
art musicfor lack of a better wordvirtually all of what we call classical music is designed to, or is attempting to, give you an out-of-body experience, to take you from where you are and put you somewhere else.  Its power to do that is mysterious, but it’s deep.

BD:   Does it still grab you even after all the time you have spent with it?

HW:   Oh, yes!  I was just listening to a piece of music that I hadn’t listened to in long time, and it moved me to tears.  I cry easily at musical experiences, and I’m glad that I do.  It’s very cathartic to know that you’ve really opened your ears and your spirit to receive the music when that happens, and I’m sure the composer would be delighted.  Hopefully you’re crying at the right spot...

BD:   ...and not run out of tissues!

HW:   Exactly!  The tears are not from pain, but in having experienced something that’s really tingling.  Why music can do that to a brain I don’t know, but it surely has over the years, particularly in what we call
classical music’.  It can develop to a high art with the very purpose of doing exactly that.

BD:   My flip remark would be,
“How very 90s of you, but is it more than just something that has come of this age?  Is it something that theoretically should have been with you if you had been conducting twenty, or fifty, or a hundred years ago?

HW:   I would assume that that’s true, and the self-same pieces that move you to tears today would move someone else to tears thirty years ago, or you ten years ago, or hopefully twenty years from now.  Maybe not, though, in the sense that your particular emotional state has something to do with how you react to music at the time.  But I do find that there are pieces of music and musical experiences that transcend all environmental or temporal considerations.  They’re sure-fire.  They will get you every time.

BD:   Will they get you every time, or will they get everybody every time?

HW:   I certainly can’t presume to say they’ll get everyone every time, but the great lasting masterpieces have achieved their status because they’ve gotten enough people enough of the time to have been elevated to that.  Consider Beethoven’s Ninth, or the end of the first act of La Bohème, or the St. Matthew Passion, or whatever your taste might be.  It will be something that time and time again comes across different cultures, different languages, different peoples, different centuries, to people with completely different cultural experiences.  The public need no particular special education to be elevated, transported, moved by the performance.

BD:   Is it partly your responsibility as conductor and/or Music Director, to grab the guy with the beer watching a baseball game, or the teenager watching MTV, as well as the general concert audience?

HW:   Yes, I think so, as much as I can.  One has to be realistic about that.  One needs to start from the point of view of being the idealist.  Yes, I want to go reach everybody, but don’t flagellate yourself if not everybody responds.  But one must have as one’s starting point to try and conceive a program that present concerts, and prepares music in a way that will grab people, and will grab everyone.  But be mindful that it won’t grab everyone, so don’t kill yourself.  That’s my advice, really.  Be realistic in that some people respond and some people will not, but be true to the ideal that the preparation and the intensity you bring to the music is designed for the ideal performance that would reach everyone.  Then it will reach enough of the people enough of the time to keep this wonderful little art form providing and surviving.

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wolff BD:   I read in some of the biographical material that you studied composition with Messiaen.  Tell me about working with him.

HW:   I was a serious composer for a while, and I studied with George Crumb, and Leon Kirchner, and Olivier Messiaen.  By the time I reached Messiaen, I wasn’t really composing that much.  But his was an extraordinary class because here was a man, already the most important French composer alive in the mid-
70s.  He had a job teaching at the government-run conservatory.  Everything is government-run there, and even though he was busy composing, he was required to be teaching a class twelve hours a week, which was an extraordinarily large amount compared to what a lot of university professors in the States do.  Here was a guy who taught three four-hour masterclasses every week.  The masterclass was open to students from all over the world, so it was quite an interesting group.  Besides the French composers, there were Japanese, American, English, Australian, and people from all over the world that came to study.  But even a class of about twenty composers could not write music fast enough for him to fill twelve hours a week critiquing compositions.  So, there was a great deal of give-and-take of young composers.  The Americans would bring in the latest work of George Crumb, or the Japanese would bring in something by Takemitsu, and Messiaen would bring in something he might be doing, or more often he would bring in the classics of the repertoire and analyze them.  He has a famous analysis of The Rite of Spring, and he analyzed Petrushka.  Of course, he bought in the Beethoven symphonies, and gave it a whole Messiaen point of view.  For me, the most fun part of the whole class was simply watching how this man responded to the great works in the standard repertoire.  [Vis-à-vis the recording shown at right, see my interviews with John Harbison, and Ezra Laderman.]

BD:   Having been involved with the compositional process yourself, does this give you a better handle on brand new works that you will then conduct?

HW:   I hope so.  I think so.  I can say, without being presumptuous, that looking at a new orchestral score is something I feel comfortable with.  It’s fun to do, and I feel pretty confident now that I can work effectively with composers, both helping to realize what they want, and, often with the younger composers who are orchestrating for the first time, be helpful to them as to knowing how it’s going to go, and why, what’s going to work and what’s not going to work.  Experienced conductors can look at scores and know what’s going to work and what’s not going to work often before the first rehearsal, and that can be very valuable to composer.  Likewise, the composer can, of course, be revelatory to the conductor.

BD:   When someone comes to you with a score and wants you to perform it, how do you decide whether, yes, you will spend the time on it, or no, it’s something that needs either more work, or is just not worthy of being presented?

HW:   Conductors do get a lot of unsolicited scores all the time.  I look for a work that is ready for performance.  It’s a work which meets its own expectations, and comes to terms with itself, and is orchestrated properly.  It has all the fundamental things, and shows that the composer clearly understands the orchestra.  He is using the right instruments at the right time, and the piece should be for orchestra and not for something else.  Often, you find that a piece is orchestrated and really isn’t an orchestra piece.  It’s an abstract notion, but what that means is that the piece sets out to do something and does it.  That’s what all of the great pieces do.  It’s harder to be more specific than that, and to encompass what music tries to do.

wolff BD:   Without mentioning any names, are we getting good orchestral and even great orchestral scores these days?

HW:   I think we are.  I would say without any doubt we are getting far, far more than we were twenty-five years ago.

BD:   Back then, it was all chamber music because that was what could get performed.

HW:   That’s right.  There has been a renaissance of orchestral compositions, and there has been a new commitment by orchestras to commission compositions of orchestral music.

BD:   Is that partly because of a new commitment on the part of the composers not to purposely offend audiences?

HW:   Yes.  All those fundamental truths are right, and all those clichés are right.  We went through a terribly dry period where there was an enormous alienation of composer and audience.  That alienation got so bad that it was then actually between composer and performer, and that, of course, was death for everybody.  A lot of those rifts are healing, and there is some very, very exciting music being played.  Even some older composers who went through the difficult times, and who got embittered by it, have been rejuvenated by new opportunities.

BD:   Ones like David Diamond, and Howard Hanson, and William Schuman?

HW:   Yes, there are certainly older composers who getting more interest from orchestras than they did twenty years ago, and this is a wonderful thing.  What was, for a while, in danger of becoming an extinct art form
the art of writing an orchestra piecehas really changed quite drastically, especially since 1970.

BD:   Are you optimistic about the future of musical composition?

HW:   Yes.  I was not so optimistic in 1976 when I finished my degree in music composition, and basically stopped composing.  I haven’t composed since.  It’s obviously for personal reasons that I’m not compelled to compose, but it wasn’t a very pretty picture back then.

BD:   Might you ever be persuaded to come back to it?

wolff HW:   I don’t think so because it’s a bit like performing.  If you don’t do it every day, you’re not going to do it very well.  You have to practice to be a good composer, just as you have to practice to be good conductor or a good violinist.  Any attempts at composition now would be very rusty, and I would have to do it every day for several years before I would be fluent again in getting ideas out of myself and onto paper.  I don’t anticipate doing that.

BD:   Is it a good thing that you are a composer’s advocate?

HW:   I hope so.  I hope that I have taken care of all my guilt by doing it that way.  Certainly, I enjoy myself more that way than facing a blank piece of paper.  I’ve had the good experience of doing a lot of premieres, and look forward to doing more.  I
ve had really honest-to-goodness friendships and personal relationships with composers, and its wonderful seeing things get created.

BD:   Are there just a few composers you will continue to champion throughout your career?

HW:   No, I don’t think so.  One always likes to perform music that one personally responds to, and I don’t respond to every contemporary composer.  I respond to some more than others, and yes, I’ll perform them as much as I can.  But I’m also always looking for other composers, and even young composers don’t resent that if you perform new works.  For example, Aaron Kernis, who is the composer-in-residence now at the
Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra, is a very talented young guy, but he’s also coming to me with American composers, both younger and older than he, that we should consider.  He acts as an advocate for his colleagues.  It’s such a small world that there isn’t room for people to exclude each other.  Everybody is trying to promote everybody else’s success.  Kerniss works are very difficult, and they do tend to require more rehearsal time [as mentioned by the publisher in the programme note shown above].  The Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra came to Chicago and did his Symphony in Waves which we commissioned.  We did that at Orchestra Hall a couple of years ago.  [This work had been recorded by the New York Chamber Symphony (on Argo in 1992) conducted by Gerard Schwarz, and would later be recorded again (on Cedille in 2006) by the Grant Park Symphony, conducted by Carlos Kalmar, who was Principal Conductor starting in 2000.]

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BD:   Are you at the point in your career that you expect to be at this age?

HW:   Sure!  [Laughs]  I feel pretty lucky.  I feel very blessed and lucky to have done a lot of things.

BD:   You’ve also done some opera.  Tell me the joys and sorrows of working with the human voice.

HW:   Oh, I love doing opera.  The only drawback is that it takes a long time to prepare.  Preparing an opera is the equivalent of preparing four or five orchestral concerts.  I’ve done a lot of concert opera, which is fun.  I did concert opera at Grant Park, and it has been quite successful.  Staged opera just takes a lot of time, and a lot of that time is spent on non-musical ideas, which can be a little bit frustrating for a conductor who is basically symphonic.

BD:   Do you get involved with the stage director?

HW:   No, I’m not particularly interested in that as long as I feel that the stage director is on the right track.  It’s not an area in which I have much expertise.

BD:   [With a gentle nudge]  Let him go, but make sure the singers are always facing you.

HW:   [Laughs]  Actually, I don’t mind if the singers aren’t facing me.  The only thing I mind is if the conceptions of tempo and style and idea and mood start getting into conflict.  Generally speaking, operas are very resilient, and they can take a lot of pushing and pulling this way and that, and still come out triumphant.

BD:   Are there more operas on your schedule?

wolff HW:   Yes, but usually only one or two a year, and next year just one in a festival in Germany.  I’m going to be doing Così in semi-concert performances.  Mainly, it’s devoting the time to staged opera is not something I’m really free to do right now.

BD:   Tell me about the musical life in Minneapolis.  [Vis-à-vis the recording shown at left, see my interviews with Dawn Upshaw, and Thomas Hampson.]

HW:   Minneapolis is wonderful, and I
m very proud to be part it.  It’s quite a unique place.  There are wo and a half million people, and the nearest big city is Chicago, which is eight or nine hours by car.  They have a somewhat isolated metropolitan area where they have done quite beautifully in this regard.  They have become very self-sufficient in the arts, and there’s really nothing lacking.  There’s a fully professional full orchestra, a fully professional chamber orchestra; the Walker Arts Center with one of the great contemporary galleries in America with the Sculpture Garden; the Guthrie Theatre; the huge University of Minnesota has a new concert hall with opera and performances of all sorts.  This is a community that is quite self-sufficient, and has an enormous range of cultural opportunities.  I really like that.  It’s also a very progressive community.  Minnesota is a state that’s sometimes out in front of the nation in experimenting with social policy, and I find it a very refreshing community to live in.  I moved my family there.  I have three young sons now, and they really like it... even the cold weather!  [Laughs]

BD:   How are you able to combine being a traveling musician and a father taking care of a family?

HW:   Ask my wife.  [Laughs]  She’s long-suffering and very tolerant, but I try to be a good dad.  Sometimes I’m away an awful lot, and I try to bring the family sometimes, but we have a newborn now.  We have four- and five-year-old sons, and a newborn son, so what was going to be a family month here in Chicago is now me alone in Chicago, and the family’s coming for the weekends.  With a newborn it was too much to organize.  But I do find that this is part of the reason why I have devoted so much time to Saint Paul and Grant Park, and to keep guest conducting down to something in the order of twelve weeks a year.

BD:   And those weeks are scattered?

HW:   They try to be scattered.  When I was living in New York and was music director of Saint Paul, I was away from home more than half the days of the year.  Now I try to be away from home less than a hundred days a year... which is still an awful lot, but less than a lot of people in other lines of work.  So, that’s the priority I try to keep straight.

BD:   One last question.  Is conducting fun?

HW:   Oh, yes!  I feel very lucky to be one of the people whose job is something they really like doing.  It’s an all-encompassing thing
your job and your life are intertwined.  Your job isn’t something you go to, and then you try to have your life on the side.  Being on the radio, you probably feel the same about your line of work.  

BD:   Of course!

HW:   We’re lucky, and we should always be grateful and enjoy it as much as much as we possibly can.

BD:   I wish you lots of continued success.

HW:   Thanks.

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© 1994 Bruce Duffie

This conversation was recorded in Chicago on July 18, 1994.  Portions were broadcast on WNIB in 1998; and on WNUR in 2002 and 2015.  This transcription was made in 2018, and posted on this website at that time.  My thanks to British soprano Una Barry for her help in preparing this website presentation.

To see a full list (with links) of interviews which have been transcribed and posted on this website, click here.  To read my thoughts on editing these interviews for print, as well as a few other interesting observations, click here.

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Award - winning broadcaster Bruce Duffie was with WNIB, Classical 97 in Chicago from 1975 until its final moment as a classical station in February of 2001.  His interviews have also appeared in various magazines and journals since 1980, and he now continues his broadcast series on WNUR-FM, as well as on Contemporary Classical Internet Radio.

You are invited to visit his website for more information about his work, including selected transcripts of other interviews, plus a full list of his guests.  He would also like to call your attention to the photos and information about his grandfather, who was a pioneer in the automotive field more than a century ago.  You may also send him E-Mail with comments, questions and suggestions.