Classical Music Review: A Conductor’s Debut

By Caldwell Titcomb

The New England Conservatory (enrollment 750) recently decided to upgrade its orchestral program. Its major move was to appoint the newly-endowed Stanford and Norma Jean Calderwood Director of Orchestras. The inaugural holder of the post is the well-established conductor Hugh Wolff. In 1975 he graduated magna cum laude from Harvard (where he was also elected to Phi Beta Kappa).

A gifted pianist, he got his initial experience in conducting with the college’s Bach Society Orchestra (founded in 1954), serving as its Music Director during his senior year (more than a half dozen of its music directors have over the decades gone on to important conducting careers). Since his graduation Wolff has held numerous posts and has conducted countless orchestras all over the world.

Conductor Hugh Wolff

In his new job Wolff on October 1 made his public debut by leading the NEC Philharmonia (the senior of the school’s four orchestras) in a Jordan Hall concert. The first half of the program was devoted to three American works each of nine or ten minutes. Appropriate to the occasion was Aaron Jay Kernis’ “New Era Dance,” written in 1992 for the New York Philharmonic. It proved to be obviously urban and ebullient, with pseudo-siren sounds and at one point rhythmic shouting by the players. The short, goateed composer, now 48, was in the audience and was beckoned to the stage for a bow.

Wolff next turned to the rarely played “Music for a Scene from Shelley,” composed at 23 by Samuel Barber (1910-1981). Inspired by lines from the poet’s four-act “Prometheus Unbound” (1819), the work calls for suave string playing (which it received in spades), with judicious but telling use of the harp.

There followed the prize-winning “Holiday Overture” by Elliott Carter, who will turn 100 on December 11. Written in 1944 for the Boston Symphony Orchestra to celebrate the liberation of Paris in World War II, this piece gives prominence to the woodwinds. Carter revised the work in 1961, but I have no idea how extensively. At any rate, it is rhythmically complex though in a relatively accessible style quite different from the atonality he would later embrace (to many people’s regret). Wolff elicited a properly rambunctious reading.

After intermission the orchestra showed how impressive it could be in a celebrated staple, Beethoven’s “Symphony No. 7 in A Major.” There was a horn bobble or two (which one is likely to encounter with the best orchestras), but no one could deny that this was a remarkable performance. Conducting without a score, Wolff’s demeanor on the podium was fairly athletic. There was occasional swaying or crouching, and he often rolled forward on the balls of his feet. He cued his charges clearly, and obviously conveyed his feelings to the students. The scherzo movement went at a dashing clip – in his program note Wolff termed it “the fastest of the scherzi in Beethoven’s symphonies and the only one marked Presto.” With no break, the finale was exuberant and thrilling.

I had not seen Wolff in action since he was an undergraduate. He is not a mere time-beater; he is a real conductor. He has moved his family to Boston and has committed to spending at least 20 weeks a year at the Conservatory. He will present his next free Jordan Hall concert on October 22 – this time not with the NEC Philharmonia but with the NEC Symphony Orchestra – in a program including Messiaen’s “Les Offrandes Oubliées” (to honor the composer’s centennial), Berlioz’s “Romeo and Juliet” (excerpts, I assume), and Schumann’s “Symphony No. 2 in C Major” (whose slow movement is the composer’s supreme stretch of orchestral music).

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