Hugh Wolff: All the Right Moves

Hugh Wolff, who got his start with the National Symphony Orchestra in 1979, returns for an all-French program.
Hugh Wolff, who got his start with the National Symphony Orchestra in 1979, returns for an all-French program. (By Frank Husbrohmer)
By Anne Midgette
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, April 25, 2008

The career of the American conductor Hugh Wolff appears to be like grass: It is always greener, or better-known, somewhere else. Wolff garners nothing but acclaim; he led the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra and the New Jersey Symphony for many years; he has had a fine career in Europe; and yet on these shores, he appears not to be as well known as he might be. In Washington, he was once a familiar figure -- he got his start at the National Symphony Orchestra, as assistant to Mstislav Rostropovich, in 1979 -- but he has not been back to the orchestra all that frequently since.

Last night's all-French NSO concert (which repeats this afternoon and Saturday night) made one both ask why and understand, a bit, how Wolff might get looked over. He is adept, lithe and likable. He has a particular sensitivity to French music. He has the athleticism that appears to be practically de rigueur for a certain kind of conductor of the post-Leonard Bernstein generation (Wolff is 54), which is to say that he springs around the podium a bit, hunching over certain passages as if to foster a chord within his own body, keeping energy almost visibly emanating from elastic beats of his baton. Yet there is a certain cerebral quality that adds up, for all of the energy, to a kind of calculated reserve.

This sense derived in part from the program, which was certainly beautifully calculated itself. It balanced the virtuosic pianism of Saint-Saëns's Fifth Piano Concerto with piano at a remove in the form of Aaron Jay Kernis orchestrations of five Debussy piano etudes. It also played off the taut, original musical observations of Dutilleux's "Métaboles" -- a showcase written for the Cleveland Orchestra, which gave it its first performance in 1965 -- with the more familiar richness of "La Mer." The evening generally offered a portrait of the orchestra as a well of impressionistic color. But the works on the first half -- the Dutilleux and the Saint-Saëns -- had a certain almost clinical distance, as if a painter were mixing colors, quizzically, with white gloves, and this came from the pieces themselves rather than the conductor.

Kernis's Debussy orchestrations, commissioned by Wolff and the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra, are lovely throwbacks to the time when such orchestrations were common. The composer sought to create works that Debussy might have written, rather than a late-20th-century homage. Together they form a fine orchestral suite, introduced by the scales of "Pour les cinq doigts," languorous in "Pour les sixtes" and building to the long dark exegesis of "Pour les sonorités opposées." And this, in turn, was a fine warm-up to "La Mer," the most unbuckled of the pieces on the program.

Throughout the evening, Wolff kept focus but did not keep the orchestra too clean. Indeed, some textures were oddly muffled, as if washes of orchestral color ran over the fine lines of a solo instrument.

The showpiece, of course, was the concerto, a perfectly pleasant piece of music that is a lot of fun to hear once in a while, and for something that puts itself and its listeners through so many paces is strikingly phlegmatic -- possibly reflecting the equanimity of its virtuosic composer. Stephen Hough, the pianist, is himself a rather cerebral player. He plays ferociously, with a taste of metal lodged in his sound, and executed a formidable, if not always warmblooded, performance.

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