Between a Rock (New York) and Another Hard Place (Philadelphia), Hugh Wolff Conducts a Revival

updated 08/31/1987 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 08/31/1987 AT 01:00 AM EDT

Professional orchestras do not play in an abandoned railway station, a former porno-movie palace or a high school auditorium unless they can't play anywhere else. The New Jersey Symphony Orchestra proved that point the hard way. Squeezed between New York and Philadelphia, both home to world-class orchestras of great reputation, the once-proud NJSO sank into hopeless second-rate status after a crippling season-long strike in 1980-81. For two years afterward the New Jersey group had no music director and couldn't afford to rent concert halls. Then in 1985 Hugh Wolff arrived.

Practice, they say, is what gets you to Carnegie Hall, and when the 33-year-old conductor took his orchestra there last April, the out-of-towners played as if they owned the place. New York Times critic Donal Henahan confessed to being "impressed to the point of astonishment." The startling performance, he observed, "must testify to the young conductor's skill as a teacher as well as a virtuoso performer." Mstislav Rostropovich, for one, wasn't a bit surprised by the praise. The renowned émigré cellist and conductor, who hired Wolff as his assistant with the National Symphony Orchestra in 1979, regards him as "one of the greatest talents of his generation in the United States." This coming season Wolff will guest-conduct big-name orchestras, including the Philadelphia Orchestra and Georg Solti's Chicago Symphony. Earlier this month he conducted an all-star rendition of Beethoven's Triple Concerto with pianist Dudley Moore (yes, the Dudley Moore), violinist Itzhak Perlman and cellist Yo-Yo Ma.

Born in Paris, the son of a U.S. foreign service officer, Wolff started piano lessons at 10 and began conducting during his senior year as a music composition major at Harvard. "Our violin section," he recalls, "was stocked with premed students who wanted to get away from organic chemistry for a while." After graduating in 1975, Wolff had to wait tables to pay the rent. When he burnt his hand on a tray of hot rolls, he remembers, "I thought, 'Wait a minute, I need these hands.' " Luckily, Rostropovich came to the rescue in 1979. As his assistant, Wolff was allowed to fill in for an ailing guest conductor and found himself leading the NSO in two weeks of important concerts. Not that it cured him of pre-performance jitters. Two years later he was so nervous before one tour that he packed two left shoes and ended up borrowing a pair from the trombonist.

Wolff's conducting style too is excitable. "I have never been accused of underconducting," he says. "I let the music out." He believes much of the conductor's task is psychological: "You have to be able to convince 100 people that what you want them to do is what they want to do."

Wolff lives in Manhattan to be closer to his girlfriend, Judy Kogan, a writer and harpist. But his professional attention is still directed across the George Washington Bridge, where New Jersey Gov. Thomas Kean has announced plans for a $300 million performing arts center that will give the group an official concert hall at last in Newark. How did Wolff put the NJSO on the map? Timing, he says. "It's like being a general in charge of the troops," Wolff explains. "You wait for the people to shut up and the orchestra to settle down. Then, pow!"

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