Young American nears world stage Conductor: Unassuming Hugh Wolff, conducting here this week, has landed one of the prestige symphony orchestras in Europe.


Hugh Wolff may be the only music director of a major American orchestra whose telephone number is listed.

"You should have just called Minneapolis-St. Paul directory assistance," Wolff tells a caller who tries to excuse his tadiness by explaining that he had temporarily misplaced the conductor's home telephone number.

Lanky, freckled and red-haired, Wolff is a grown-up version of the boy next door. Never mind that he's a Harvard Phi Beta Kappa, that he studied composition with Olivier Messiaen in Paris, and that he was Mstislav Rostropovich's favorite protege in the late '70s and early '80s, when he assisted the cellist-conductor with the National Symphony. He lives simply and unpretentiously in the Twin Cities with his wife, writer Judith Kogan, and their three young sons.

But the Parisian-born, Washington-raised, Peabody Conservatory-trained Wolff, 41, is one of the fastest-rising young American conductors on the international scene. He's music director of the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra, America's finest and only full-time chamber orchestra, which he will conduct in Meyerhoff Hall tomorrow evening.

And Wolff's career is about to take a giant step. Last June he was appointed chief conductor of one of Europe's greatest orchestras, the Frankfurt Radio Symphony Orchestra, a position he will assume in fall 1997.

The Frankfurt RSO, which has 125 full-time musicians (the BSO has fewer than 100; even the biggest American orchestras have fewer than Frankfurt does), is one of several government-supported German orchestras founded with the purpose of performing for broadcast. With the Berlin RSO and the Bavarian RSO in Munich, Frankfurt is one of the three most important.

"This is one of the big [jobs] in Europe," says Wolff, drawing a breath. "I was a little surprised they [the musicians] chose me."

That Wolff's appointment is indeed prestigious can be conveyed by noting that Vladimir Ashkenazy and Lorin Maazel are, respectively, the principal conductors in Berlin and Munich. Wolff will be the latest in a line of conductors in Frankfurt that includes Karl Bohm, Georg Solti and, more recently, Eliahu Inbal, who recorded critically acclaimed cycles of the symphonies of Mahler, Bruckner and Shostakovich in Frankfurt.

"The possibilities are almost unlimited," says Wolff, who records with the St. Paul for Teldec, a label that also records the Frankfurt RSO. "But I may stay away from Bruckner, Mahler and Shostakovich."

Wolff is certain he was chosen by the Frankfurt musicians because of his facility with lighter works rather than the Fafnirs of Bruckner and Mahler, and that the specific occasion was a guest appearance in which he conducted Schubert's Symphony No. 9 (the "Great") in C major. In Germany, the Schubert Ninth has come to be performed as if it were a symphony in the Bruckner tradition, instead of one that anticipates it.

"German orchestra musicians call the Great C major 'dirigent grabe' [conductor's grave]," Wolff says. "I interpreted it more classically than they were accustomed to -- a little faster and lighter. Afterward they asked, 'Would you come to be our conductor?' "

He is aware of the irony of a 41-year-old American conductor going to a leading German orchestra with the charge of performing the Austro-Germanic classics.

"They've lost touch with the classics that come before late Romanticism," Wolff says.

"In Germany I don't believe there's a single large orchestra that's accustomed to a steady diet of symphonies by Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven and Schubert."

That's exactly some of the fare that Wolff's been serving since 1988 in St. Paul. American union regulations ensure that all members of an orchestra be paid, whether it performs a Mahler symphony (that demands all 100 musicians) or one by Mozart (that uses less than half that number).

"Actually none of the big orchestras can afford to do much Mozart or Haydn and that has left the field open for us," Wolff says, noting that the SPCO has only 33 full-time musicians.

Frankfurt should also prove hospitable to new music, another of Wolff's major interests. It is a sophisticated city that has had deep musical connections to composers such as Schoenberg and John Cage. It is geographically (as well as intellectually) close to Darmstadt, which attracted many leading avant-gardists the 1950s and '60s, including Cage, Pierre Boulez and Karlheinz Stockhausen.

Wolff has already talked to A&R; people at Teldec about recording Schoenberg and Stravinsky, as well as Debussy, Ravel and Milhaud, in Frankfurt.

Wolff will continue to spend 15 weeks a year with the St. Paul orchestra, conduct the Frankfurt RSO for only about 10 weeks and sharply reduce his guest-conducting engagements.

"I want my family to continue to live in the Twin Cities," he says. "It's safe, they love it and I want to keep spending as much time as I do with them."

In concert

What: The St. Paul Chamber Orchestra and guest soloist, percussionist Evelyn Glennie

Where: Meyerhoff Symphony Hall

When: 8 p.m. Tuesday

Tickets: $18-$40

Call: (410) 783-8000

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