Cross-cultural journey: to Frankfurt and back

Hugh Wolff became Principal Conductor of the Frankfurt Radio Symphony Orchestra in 1997, after having first guest conducted them in 1993. He led them for nine seasons. Perhaps surprisingly, the German orchestra looked to their American conductor to school them in the Viennese classics.

The richest part of my collaboration in Frankfurt has been re-exploring the classical Austro-German repertoire together, especially Haydn and all the Beethoven symphonies. The impetus to do this came from the Frankfurt musicians –- they felt they had not been performing their traditional repertoire enough. They liked the style of my Haydn recordings with the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra, so when I first arrived they asked me to focus on the classical repertoire. The irony of a German orchestra asking an American conductor to lead them in German classical repertoire was not lost on me, but I was happy to oblige!

The voyage of rediscovery has involved an increased awareness of historical performance practice.

A strong and mutual desire to re-examine traditional assumptions made this process very rewarding. The brass players came to me early on and said, “We’ve been fooling around on these old valveless instruments, and we’d like to try them in performance!” Shortly thereafter, I said to some American brass players, “You know, guys, the brass players in Germany aren’t playing these modern instruments anymore for Haydn and Beethoven. What do you think?” And they looked at me in horror, “No, we can’t do that!” This flew in the face of my expectations regarding adaptable Americans and traditionalist Europeans.

Frankly, one area in which American orchestras are behind their European colleagues is the recognition that playing older music requires the study of historical performance practice. When you do Haydn or Beethoven with a German orchestra, your starting point is usually more stylistically aware in terms of articulation and expression of small phrases. This is automatic –- no need to debate or explain. In America you often have to say, “Lift the bow here, vibrate less there, a little less legato and sostenuto, please.” In Germany today, particularly among the young players, there is eagerness to embrace historically informed performance practice. That was part of the excitement of working in Frankfurt. They have a fantastic cutting-edge new music series and at the same time we were recording Haydn and Beethoven sounding more and more like an authentic instrument ensemble –- probably as much as any modern-instrument ensemble in the world.

I bring a convert’s zeal to this trend. Can it find traction in America? It should. The virtuosity of American orchestras is their greatest asset –- there is nothing they cannot play. The time is right for them to take on the challenge of historically informed performance. There’s a devoted audience waiting for them.