Hugh Wolff, an American in Brussels

A new name, a new conductor. But who is Hugh Wolff, the musical director of the Belgian National Orchestra?

2017 © Escritoire
2017 © Escritoire
  • You have an impressive background: born in Paris, studied at Harvard University, a pupil of Messiaen in France and of Fleisher in the US. How have all these different cultural approaches to music influenced your own vision of music? 

I consider myself fortunate in having lived, studied and worked in different countries. I believe this has helped me gain a broader view of style and of what is important in different cultures. 

  • You have worked with both American and European orchestras. Is there a difference? 

There are important differences between orchestras in different countries. I would say that orchestras in the US and the UK (where government funding is lower) work very quickly and efficiently, in part because they are trying to save money. In continental Europe, orchestras may perhaps work more slowly but they often have more time to rehearse. I value both approaches! 

  • You were chief conductor of the Frankfurt Radio Symphony Orchestra for nearly a decade. What are your memories of that period? 

I have great memories of my time in Frankfurt and I continue to work with that orchestra from time to time. I very much appreciate the way in which radio orchestras seek to present the public with the widest possible repertoire, as they broadcast every concert and therefore do not like to repeat themselves. This gave us a very wide choice and the scope to tackle very diverse works. We launched a "Barock+" series, for example, which explored early music and works for very small orchestras. We experimented with natural brass instruments, without pistons, and tried to learn about early performance practices. I believe this proved rewarding to both the musicians and the public. It certainly broadened my own insight into this music. 

  • Whereas in Europe culture is financed mainly by government, most orchestras in the US rely on private initiatives and funding. Does that change anything? Is it true to say that people in Europe are more sensitive to classical music than they are in the US? 

I greatly appreciate the fact that artists in Europe are encouraged to take risks and do not have to find the money for each project. It is important for artists to try new and challenging things. They may not always succeed, but artists have an obligation to be creative. I do not believe that people in a particular country are more sensitive to classical music than they are in another. It is more to do with the individual listener being familiar with the sound language of classical music in expressing emotions and ideas. 

  • New technologies have radically changed the relationship between the classical music industry and the public. How can new technologies be used to reach a wider, younger public? 

Today's young people expect almost everything to be visual. For more than a generation, new popular music has been accompanied by a music video. Classical music does not have a natural visual component, so this creates a challenge when it comes to gaining the attention of young people. The creative streaming of concerts, producing classical music videos, and performances at different kinds of locations can all contribute to reaching a younger audience. There is more than we can and should do, principally in regard to programming and concert presentation (lighting, clothing, visuals), to communicate our passion for this music. 

  • Your discography ranges from Bach to Copland. Do you feel a particular affinity with a specific period in the history of music? 

My training and background have helped me to feel comfortable with many styles. And I think that as a conductor, as someone leading a group of musicians, each with their own tastes and opinions, you are obliged to take all these preferences and ideas into account. So I certainly don't try to specialize! 

  • Do you prefer programmes that combine different periods, styles and countries, or more thematic programmes? 

I like to create programmes rather like a chef plans a meal or a curator an exhibition. I believe that at a concert, the pieces of music must "speak" to one another so that the listener starts to think about why they were brought together in the same programme. This will be the case several times during the coming season. 

  • Do you have a specific artistic idea that you want to develop with the orchestra? 

We are busy expanding the repertoire and the venues where we perform. As a national orchestra, we have the responsibility to perform in all areas of the country. It is my ambition to promote Belgian culture and artists and to strengthen the orchestra's international profile. 

  • What is it like to conduct at BOZAR?

I very much like the unique beauty and quality of the main Henry le Boeuf Hall. It is a jewel the crown of Brussels and of Belgium. A pleasure for the musicians and for the audience.  

  • The theme for the 2017-2018 BOZAR season is “The Sound of Change”. What does that mean for you?

Why is it that people turn to music in times of intense emotion, whether it be stress, sadness, or moments of euphoria? Music has a power to channel our emotions and change how we feel. When music bypasses the rational to nourish the soul, it succeeds in expressing the inexpressible. Music changes us.