Hugh Wolff (born 1953) achieved a national reputation as a talented conductor and in the 1990s was considered one of a handful of Americans who would lead the major orchestras of the future. He was musical director of the New Jersey Symphony and principal conductor of the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra. He had also been a guest conductor with many of the best-known orchestras in the United States.
His family was living in Paris when Hugh Wolff was born in 1953. His father was a U.S. foreign service officer, and the family subsequently moved to postings in London and the Washington, D.C. area. When Wolff was 10 years old he became fascinated by the piano while watching his sister practice. Later, in his own words, he became "one of those obnoxious twelve-year-olds who practiced every day, entered local piano competitions, and endured the jeers of the neighborhood kids because I spent so much time at the piano." While still in high school, Wolff was fortunate to be able to study piano with Leon Fleisher and composition with George Crumb. In choosing a college, Wolff avoided conservatories, viewing them as intellectually confining, and attended Harvard College instead. He majored in composition there and studied piano with Leonard Shure and composition with Leon Kirchner while also studying physics, mathematics, and chemistry.
It was at Harvard that Wolff had his first experiences as a conductor, leading the student-run Bach Society Orchestra. Some of the instrumentalists were "pre-med students who wanted to get away from organic chemistry for a while," according to Wolff. He found the experience invaluable. "I learned from the bottom up," he says, "planning programs, selling tickets, setting up chairs. That's how you get the bug."
Wolff graduated from Harvard magna cum laude and Phi Beta Kappa in 1975. During the next year he attended the Paris Conservatoire on a fellowship. There he studied conducting with Charles Bruck and composition with Oliver Messiaen. In the fall of 1976 he returned to the United States to continue his piano studies with Leon Fleisher at the Peabody Conservatory. It was at this time that Wolff decided to give up composing and to concentrate on conducting. He became the conductor for a community orchestra in Annapolis, Maryland, and sat in during rehearsals of the Baltimore Symphony. It was during these rehearsals that Wolff observed the subtle interplay between conductor and orchestra members, the combination of persuasion and pressure that is needed to forge and then project a single interpretation of a piece.
Conducting with the National Symphony Orchestra
After three years of study, Wolff decided to apply for a position as assistant conductor with a major American orchestra. As a result of sending out dozens of letters to orchestras around the country, he was invited to audition for the position of Exxon/Arts Endowment conductor with the National Symphony Orchestra (NSO). He was awarded the position and began his association with the orchestra in the 1979-1980 season. Antol Dorati, who was scheduled to give a two-week series of concerts, became indisposed and Wolff conducted the National Symphony Orchestra in his absence to critical acclaim, proving that he was able to work well under pressure.
Under the tutelage and with the support of Mstislav Rostropovich, the musical director of the National Symphony, Wolff appeared with an increasing number of orchestras around the country. In the 1980-1981 season he was a guest conductor of the Hartford Symphony and the Chicago Civic Orchestra. He also made his debut at Carnegie Hall with the National Symphony.
In the 1981-1982 season the fast pace he had set for himself continued with a debut with the London Philharmonic and a new appointment as music director of the Northeastern Pennsylvania Philharmonic. Of this appointment he said, "[It was] a remarkable orchestra based in Scranton … They capitalize on the presence of New York and Philadelphia near by, getting outside musicians to supplement a core of locals … I learned a lot there, including fund-raising and project-planning." Over the summer he returned with the NSO to the music festival at Wolf Trap.
At the end of the three-year Exxon/Arts Endowment funding, Wolff was retained for three more years as an associate conductor of the NSO. It was during these three seasons that his guest conducting increased to include the Seattle Symphony, Stockholm Philharmonic, Chicago Symphony, and the New Jersey Symphony Orchestra. It was this last orchestra that provided Wolff with his first musical directorship of an important orchestra.
Director of the New Jersey Symphony Orchestra
In the 1985-1986 season he began his tenure with the New Jersey Symphony. One of Wolff's goals was to develop interesting programs by using unifying themes, by juxtaposing works in some way related to each other, and by re-enacting concert programs from the past. His first concert as music director was a re-creation of a concert of Beethoven's music held in Vienna on December 22, 1808. The program, the length of which required a dinner break in the middle of the performance, included Symphonies No. 5 and No. 6 plus the G major piano concerto and three movements from the Mass in C and the Choral Fantasia. Michael Redmond remarked in Musical America that, "[Wolff] appears to have a particular gift for music of extended lyrical character. He never permitted the songful lines of the Sixth Symphony to sag; instead, they seemed to pick up tensile strength the longer they got."
During the years that he was musical director of the New Jersey Symphony he was in great demand and his schedule was astonishingly full. He conducted concert versions of operas, including Eidelio by Beethoven and a program called "Star-Crossed Lovers" which included Prokofiev and Tchaikovsky's music based on the story of Romeo and Juliet. In addition to the many responsibilities that came from directing the New Jersey Symphony, he also accepted the position of principal conductor of the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra.
As music director of The Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra (SPCO), Wolff continued delighting audiences and critics alike. Under his direction the SPCO made tours on both the national and international scene. Wolff's recordings regularly made Billboard's top-selling classical music charts. While associated with the SPCO, he also found time for guest conducting engagements with the National Symphony Orchestra, the San Francisco Symphony and the Atlanta Symphony. The 1990's included two nationally-televised concerts: a "Live from Lincoln Center" Christmas program (1990) and "A Capitol Fourth" Independence Day concert from Washington, D.C. (1992). In 1993 Wolff served as artistic director of the American Russian Youth Orchestra with performances in both Russia and the U.S.
Wolff was already one of the leading American conductors by the 1990s. His extensive training, excellent teachers, and broad experience gave him a particularly rich background from which to develop his own interpretations of orchestral music, enabling him to transmit to an audience all of the subtlety and intricacy of the symphonic repertoire.
Further Reading on Hugh Wolff
Many of Wolff's performances have been reviewed in newspapers and magazines. Good articles about him appeared in the New York Times on February 1, 1989, and in Musical America in September 1987 in which he discussed his career. Regular reviews of his recordings can be found in magazines such as; Stereo Review and American Record Guide.