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The “New” in NEC: The Buzz from New Faculty, New Programs, New Events


On April 7, New England Conservatory Philharmonia Orchestra is putting on a concert for what is believed to be the first time in Symphony Hall. Conducted by Chair of Orchestral Conducting Hugh Wolff, the concert features NEC’s Artist Diploma candidate cellist Narek Hakhnazarian in Schumann’s Cello Concerto, Barber’s Adagio for Strings, and Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 10. In light of the upcoming historic concert, BMInt conducted interviews with Wolff and then New England Conservatory President Tony Woodcock.

Interview with President Tony Woodcock:

BMInt: We have done two interviews with Gunther Schuller. He had interesting things to say about the institution, 20 to 40 years ago. Link here.

Woodcock: Gunther arrived at a period of existential crisis and left it a much better place.

Were there were any surprises when you came?

 There are always surprises. I think the greatest surprise was an organization unfettered by any type of creative restrictions, where you could have an idea …

 A pleasant surprise?

Surprises can be very pleasant. … First thing I did, I took a look at the program nearest and dearest to my heart, because I had been working in that world for so long. That was the orchestral program. It hadn’t had a really full-time director for — low long? five years?

It has been one of your most dramatic contributions, to restore the NEC orchestras to prominence

If you think about it, there now are more than 300 students in our orchestras and large ensembles, so nearly 50% want a strong positive experience with the orchestral program. What is new is the depth of experience people are getting now. Hugh Wolff is phenomenal. Extraordinary. He is not a visiting celebrity, although he is a celebrity in his own right. The first thing he said was, “I will personally audition every single student for every ensemble.” The message to students was, we’re going in a different direction. To really have a program that is very challenging, so they get a tremendous sense of achievement, I think is the way to go. And we get great audiences for these concerts now. When we did the first concert this academic year, the entire building was full. I didn’t have a seat. That was some indication of a buzz that was out there about what was happening with Hugh. … He doesn’t just conduct the Philharmonia. He has amalgamated it and the Symphony, giving far more performance opportunities. We are about  make another announcement for another senior appointment within that program, and that will set it on its course. We are also in the throes of starting Musical Entrepreneurship, to recognize that excellence and quality are on the default system now. If we’ve given them all these musical skills, what are the other skills they need to be successful?  Skills of communication, of understanding of the music world, how you can make dreams a reality. How you speak to an audience. How to do everything, from how you program to an audience, through to how you market yourself. Hugh’s going to be under a fine microscope for these skills before long.

Let’s talk about your free concerts at NEC. You didn’t start them, but there’s much more of a buzz.

We have put a great deal of resources on increasing our visibility. When the students have spent several weeks preparing a program there’s nothing more disheartening than playing at Jordan for 50 people. We invested a lot in advertising program on WCRB [before the change]. Our attendances at orchestra programs went up by 71%, opera by 78%. No longer, though, because of the Federal regulations at ‘GBH. I can’t now front [Ed: be the voice in] our ads. Also, they can be no longer that 30 seconds and can only be fronted by one of their staff. So that’s done away. I am disappointed. 

So it was also an ad campaign, not just the arrival of Hugh?

Well, we had to create buzz about Hugh. And this was a very, very effective way of doing that. We still can do it on WHRB.

You are a trustee of WGBH. Can you say to what extent you were consulted about this process? What do you think of it? For example, discontinuance of Friday afternoon BSO broadcasts?

I’m a member of the ‘GBH board as the result of being one of their “Community Partners.” So I am not a big gun. It is value-added interest. I don’t think I am a key player in any changes they are making there.

Anything you’d  like to add?

As long as people are exposed to great performances and great performers, it will keep classical music alive and well. I’d like to invite people to come to our Symphony Hall concert debut on April 7. Maybe we could offer some ticket incentives for people reading the Intelligencer?

Interview with Hugh Wolff, Stanford and Norma Jean Calderwood Director of Orchestras and Chair, Orchestral Conducting

FLE: Why is April 7th so different from other nights for NEC? And why play at Symphony Hall? It doesn’t sound any better.

BMInt Staff Photo
BMInt Staff Photo

Wolff : But it seats a lot more people. The Julliard Orchestra plays at Julliard and at Avery Fisher Hall at least once a year; and I think we’re trying to build some bridges with all the other various musical organizations in Boston.

We understand there are many more people coming to the orchestra concerts these days. Is this due partly to the spotlight they are putting on you?

I guess so. … I didn’t have to reorganize much. I just said, this is important, this is how we’re going to do it. I have not made a lot of drastic changes. The school is just making more emphasis on what it means to be in an orchestra, and I’m trying to put a lot of emphasis on making the process of being in an orchestra a positive experience, musically, personally, artistically, in every way. There were periods in the school’s history when chamber music had a higher priority than orchestral music. I think, realistically speaking, it’s very very important that we give all of them a real thorough musical education that includes orchestra and have the greatest respect for the orchestra repertoire and the process of putting orchestra concerts together, and when NEC asked me to come, they wanted to make the orchestra program one of the signature programs of the school.

What else do you emphasize? 

I spend a lot of time in rehearsal explaining historical context. If you are performing Schumann’s Second Symphony you’d better know a lot about his life, Europe at the time he lived, what he was interested in, why he was, what motivated him, what his personal life was, what his mental health was. All of this stuff is really, really relevant.

Do you think it’s a prevalent problem?

I think it’s quite a problem, particularly in the United States, where the larger cultural context is not taught as thoroughly as it is in Europe. The German musicians do tend to know a bit more of the historical context; it is largely their culture, their music, in a certain way. I mean, if you’re going to conduct Also Sprach Zarasthustra, give them context, why Nietsche was so important to everybody back then, what he was trying to say, and what leitmotif Strauss used to represent his ideas. I would certainly do that with students, in great detail. I would do that more quickly with professionals in America. I need to do that less in Germany, but I’ll still do it. I’m not analyzing for them. That’s what they do naturally as musicians. What we do in rehearsals and what I am trying to do, is what was it about the culture in Europe at that time that caused them to write music in this way?

Do you think the orchestra has a different sound and attitude?

Yeah, we try to nurture that. At today’s rehearsal I had to stop and say, “You know, a forte that you make in Brahms is different than a forte you make in William Walton. It has to have a different character. Not as aggressive, not as metallic, …

You were recruited by Tony?

Yeah, basically. We happened to have lived in St. Paul at the same time, but we didn’t overlap. I had finished with the St. Paul and was working mainly with the Frankfurt Orchestra in Germany. Tony had come to work with the Minnesota Orchestra. I think we overlapped for a year and a half, without meeting. I left St. Paul 10 years ago.

What did Tony tell you that convinced you to come here? 

I guest conducted, and visited, and head the quality of the orchestras, which kind of stunned me.

Better or worse?

Much better than I expected. when I was a student at Harvard in the ’70s, I came here occasionally and the school was struggling at the time. The School almost shut its doors.

That’s when Gunther came.

Yes, Gunther and Larry Lesser basically rebuilt the school, in a wonderful way. We are building on that legacy.

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