Wednesday, July 24, 2019
The return of Hugh Wolff (story audio)


The return of Hugh Wolff
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Former St. Paul Chamber Orchestra Music Director Hugh Wolff has moved back to the Twin Cities, after five years spent in Europe. (MPR Photo/Karl Gehrke)
When Hugh Wolff steps up to the podium Thursday evening to guest conduct the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra, it'll be his first time with the group since he stepped down as music director five years ago. After spending the time since then in Europe, Wolff and his family moved back to the Twin Cities this summer. Wolff will continue his international conducting career, but Minnesota will now be his home base.

St. Paul, Minn. — Hugh Wolff was the principal conductor of the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra from 1988 to 1992, and the ensemble's music director through 2000. After leaving St. Paul, he moved his family to London and commuted to Germany where he's the music director of the Frankfurt Radio Symphony.

He still has one more season to go in Europe, butWolff, his wife and three boys decided now is the time to move back to the place where they feel at home.

"We thought it would be great to come back and settle down into a community where we know people, have some friends and have some roots," Wolff says. "So far we've been here just a couple weeks, but it feels great."

Hugh Wolff says he and his family enjoyed living in London, but it was always their plan to move back to the U.S. after a few years.

The Twin Cities may make sense for his family. What the move will do to his conducting career is another question. Since moving here in August, Wolff has been back to Germany twice and he says it won't be difficult staying busy while based in Minnesota.

"All you need is a good airport. The Twin Cities is a fantastic community, where it's easy to have like-minded friends who are involved in music and culture," says Wolff. "I had in the back of my mind all these years the example of Stanislaw Skrowaczewski, who left the Minnesota Orchestra and still lives in Wayzata, and has a held an international conducting career for many years."

"To me it was clear that you can be in any community in America now and still work internationally," says Wolff. "Yes, it's a lot of travel and it's not the most convenient way to live, but I certainly don't find that a problem. It's more important to be where everybody's happy."

Because Wolff has spent so much time in Europe over the past several years, he's been somewhat overlooked in this country.

Because I've been in Europe for five years, a lot of my work is there now. Over time, I would like to see that gradually change to doing more work in North America.
- Hugh Wolff

Tim Page, the chief classical music critic of the Washington Post, has followed Wolff's career since Wolff made his initial reputation as music director of the New Jersey Symphony in the mid-1980s. Page says he thinks Wolff is making a smart career move by returning to the U.S.

"Increasingly in the last few years, Europe and the United States have been kind of going their own separate ways when it comes to classical music," Page says. "I think there's more of a division than there was 10 years ago, especially since people aren't making recordings in the same way they used to."

"Hugh Wolff's return might be a nice reminder for some orchestras, which may soon be looking for music directors, that we have some good home-grown talent on this side of the Atlantic," says Page.

Page cites a couple of important American orchestra with vacancies on the horizon. Daniel Barenboim steps down from the Chicago Symphony at the end of this season, and Leonard Slatkin's contract with the National Symphony in Washington D.C. expires in a few years.

Wolff says for the moment, he's not interested in a permanent conducting position.

"At some point I would like to settle down again," he says. "But I'm happy to be persuing relationships with orchestras I've guest-conducted a lot over the years. That's comfortable for me and we'll see how that works."

"Because I've been in Europe for five years, a lot of my work is there now," Wolff says. "Over time, I would like to see that gradually change to doing more work in North America. You do tend to guest conduct close to home, and living back here I hope to be guest conducting more in the states."

Hugh Wolff guest conducts the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra Thursday through Saturday at the Ordway Center. He doesn't expect to have any formal relationship with the orchestra now that he's back in the Twin Cities.

After conducting some 600 concerts over a dozen years with the SPCO, he says it would be a bit redundant for the orchestra to attach his name to its masthead again. He says he'll just have to wait and see what musical role develops for him in the Twin Cities.

Wolff says he plans to stay here at least three years. After that, his two oldest sons will be in college and he'll be open to moving again if a job takes him elsewhere.