From 1972 to 1973, Leonard Bernstein was in residence at Harvard about one month each semester preparing and delivering the Charles Eliot Norton Lectures on Poetics. Bernstein chose to posit a connection between musical and linguistic syntax, and (with some inspiration from Noam Chomsky) crafted a series of six lecture-performances tracing the development of musical syntax from Mozart to Stravinsky, jazz, and beyond. These were equal parts lecture in the traditional sense; performances with Bernstein sitting at the piano playing, singing, and explaining; and videos of performances with the Boston Symphony. The audience was so large the lectures had to be moved to the cinema in Harvard Square. I especially remember the video recording of Stravinsky’s Oedipus Rex with René Kollo, Tatiana Troyanos, the Boston Symphony and the Harvard Glee Club - I was accompanist and a member of the bass section. There I am, shoulder length hair and all, in the chorus. In Bernstein’s hands this little-known work of Stravinsky was revealed to be an astonishingly powerful masterpiece.
While on campus, Bernstein gave impromptu classes. One that focused on musical theater in West Side Story and Carmen was particularly compelling. Bernstein was then writing The Dybbuk, a ballet for Jerome Robbins, and needed to make a recording of what he had written so Robbins to could start choreographing. My classmate Neal Stulberg (now head of orchestras at UCLA) and I were drafted to play the score at two pianos with a tape recorder running. Bernstein and doctoral student Gerald Moshell (later professor of music at Trinity College) sang the vocal parts, Bernstein in his incomparable resonant baritone, while he conducted and counted to keep us together.
In June 1973 the Harvard Glee Club joined the Newark Boys’ Choir and the Italian Radio Orchestra of Rome in a performance at the Vatican of Bernstein’s Chichester Psalms and Bach’s Magnificat with Bernstein conducting. Marking the tenth anniversary of the Pope Paul VI’s investiture, the audience of six thousand included the pope, hundreds of cardinals, church officials, and music lovers. It was quite an event: an American Jew at the Vatican, a choir that included more than fifty young African-Americans, live Italian television, and sacred music sung in Hebrew and Latin. For those of us onstage it was unforgettable. Just before the start of the concert there were two people not yet in place: Leonard Bernstein and the pope. We wondered who would get the final entrance. Of course, it was the pope. After Bernstein took his place on the podium and faced the audience, the pope was brought down the main aisle on his throne and seated front and center. It was one of the few times Lenny was upstaged.
Years later I worked with Bernstein when he guest conducted and toured with the National Symphony Orchestra. As assistant conductor, I was at all his rehearsals and concerts and helped in any way needed: conducting sound checks at Tanglewood and Ravinia while he listened from the back of the auditorium, conducting the off-stage brass in a performance of Mahler’s Second Symphony, offering advice on balance from the hall, correcting errors in the parts. He was a dynamo of musical and emotional energy with a remarkably incisive mind. In 1987, at a concert for the America-Israel Cultural Foundation, I conducted a full program of his music in his presence at Carnegie Hall. Talk about pressure. He was most gracious.
"Mr. Wolff and his young charges closed the concert with a bang-up performance of Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 6. The Presto finale, with the young players reveling in the thrill of collective virtuosity, was sheer joy." - The New York Times
"Wolff's Shostakovich 10 was powerful, three-dimensional and devastating, and the Atlanta Symphony blossomed by his approach. Much of the opening movement builds to an unbearable tension. Wolff paced it tautly and meaningfully, with understated authority. When the music finally crossed that emotional threshold and plummeted into some dark netherworld of a broken psyche, Wolff did not, would not, relent... Credit Wolff with delivering the crucial essence of a harrowing masterpiece of the 20th century."
"Conductor Hugh Wolff presided over one of the Utah Symphony’s most high-spirited programs of the season on Friday. From Beethoven’s ever-popular “Leonore” Overture No. 3 to Saint-Saëns’ playful Cello Concerto No. 1 to Charles Ives’ invigorating Symphony No. 2, the concert was a sheer delight."
"Under Wolff's careful guidance, the [Minnesota] orchestra gave this music [Adès] the sort of wham-bam-socko performance it needs. Wolff, the former music director of the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra, is a gifted conductor who should be seen here more often."
"The evening's strength was the conductor, Hugh Wolff, an urbane host who without undue Sturm und Drang made Mendelssohn's Scottish Symphony, the composer's third, an absolute delight."
Click here to read the full review from the Washington Post
What's on my desk…
In Belgium, we start the second year of a three-year programmatic plan. Last season we focused on the individual; this season it’s on the group: tribal behavior and the passions and conflicts (and perhaps benefits) that arise from humans grouping together and excluding others: Beethoven’s music for Goethe’s Egmont (with special relevance to Belgium and Flemish history), music from Tristan and Isolde and Romeo and Juliet, and Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring. Of special interest is a program for the centennial of the armistice that ended World War I, a huge event in Belgium. We’ll present the world premiere of A War Requiem by Belgian composer Annelies Van Parys along with Mahler’s Fifth Symphony.
At New England Conservatory, we’re focusing on Leonard Bernstein’s centennial. Assumed by many to be a New Yorker through and through, Bernstein was actually born and raised in the Boston area, studied piano at NEC prep, attended Boston Latin for middle and high school and Harvard College. After graduate studies at Curtis, he returned to Boston, rented an apartment across the street from NEC and taught piano and theory students to earn a living. At NEC, we’ll perform some of his works from the familiar Candide and Symphonic Dances from West Side Story to the under-appreciated ballet The Dybbuk.
Here are my personal memories of America’s most important classical musician.