Conductor Hugh Wolff
A Conversation with Bruce Duffie
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?
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
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
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
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 week — means
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 unexpected
— the 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
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-á-vis
the recording shown at right, see my interview with 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, I’ve 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
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 Brahms — a 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.
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 piece
— then 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 Government — it’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 public — not 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?
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 pieces — like 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
Park — as 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?
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-á-vis the recording shown at right, see my
interviews with John
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
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
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
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
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.
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
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
Orchestra — where we’ve been making quite a
few records recently — it’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
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
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?
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
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
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 music’
— for lack of a better word — virtually
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
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
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.
* * *
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 Takamitsu,
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-á-vis the recording shown at right, see my interview
with John Harbison.]
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
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
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
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 piece — has 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?
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
BD: Is it a good thing that you are a composer’s
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 it’s
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. Kernis’s
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.]
* * *
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
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?
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-á-vis the recording shown at left, see my interviews
with Dawn Upshaw, and
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
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.
--- --- --- ---
© 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
To see a full list (with links) of interviews which have been transcribed
and posted on this website, click here.
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
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,
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