Familiar to many Twin Cities orchestra fans, Hugh Wolff was the principal conductor and music director of the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra from 1988 to 2000. This September, he begins his tenure as the next Music Director of the National Orchestra of Belgium. He conducts the Minnesota Orchestra on February 23 to 25 in performances of Adès Dances from Powder Her Face, Bartók's Violin Concerto with violinist Karen Gomyo, and Mendelssohn's Scottish Symphony. We caught up with him to ask a few questions before he arrives in Minneapolis for these concerts.
What is your earliest musical memory?
My parents were casual listeners to equal parts classical, opera and Broadway, but I got a late start as a musician. My earliest classical music memory is the Infernal Dance from Stravinsky’s Firebird being used as theme music for a science TV show in fourth grade. I didn’t know it was Stravinsky until I heard it again when my class went to a National Symphony Orchestra young people’s concert. That got me interested and excited.
What or who influences you most as a musician?
The composer I am studying and performing influences me the most—and the desire to communicate my own passion and excitement about that composer to others.
Which piece of music on your desk right now is especially fascinating or challenging?
Massenet’s opera Cendrillon—a charming and effective piece, and it will be my first venture back into the opera pit in quite a while.
What excites you as you return to Minnesota for these concerts?
We lived in the Twin Cities for ten years, so I am always happy to return, see friends and rekindle good memories.
What should the audience listen for in these performances?
The Adès Dances from Powder Her Face are 1920s jazz tunes seen through a modern kaleidoscope: raunchy, edgy, both humorous and uncomfortable. Brilliantly orchestrated.
The Bartók Violin Concerto, like a lot of the composer’s music, is based loosely on folk melodies. But Bartók was the master of expanding the vernacular to encompass a whole world of complex sounds and emotions. Listen for the middle movement’s variations on a simple, beguiling tune first played by the violin alone. And the last movement is a wild romp in waltz time, based on the same melody that began the first movement.
What is your favorite conducting venue?
My favorite venue is probably the Musikverein in Vienna. It was home to Brahms and Mahler, and its unparalleled acoustics are a joy to play in. The hall does so much for you, enhancing the sound and putting a sheen on everything.
What about the most unusual venue?
The most unusual venue I played in recently was the depot for the street cars in Frankfurt, Germany. This was part of a Daniel Libeskind-curated day of concerts throughout the city in unusual or quotidian venues. We performed the Mozart Requiem in the train depot, and it was a surprisingly moving experience. Putting this masterpiece of sacred music in a decidedly down-to-earth setting seemed to intensify the music and its message.
If not on the podium, in which section would we find you onstage?
I was actually trained as a pianist, and among my most thrilling memories are the times when I played a piano concerto with an orchestra. I’ve also played piano within the orchestra, which is an entirely different and very difficult task.
When you aren’t conducting, what do you do for fun?
I like to cook, listen to non-musical podcasts and go for walks. Having lived and worked overseas, I am interested in other cultures and politics. I feel it is more important than ever to work for global understanding and tolerance. I am excited to begin working in Brussels next season, where the now-threatened project of European cooperation is based—a project that has kept the peace in Europe for 70 years.
When you get a chance to attend a concert as an audience member instead of as the conductor, what do you love to listen to?
Not surprisingly, I suppose, I am drawn to orchestral concerts and piano recitals. And a good string quartet concert is a real delight—a miracle of musical cooperation.