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New Jersey welcomes conductor with fresh ideas. Hugh Wolff sows high hope for state symphony

If anything can be judged on the basis of one long concert, then the New Jersey Symphony has found, in a young red-haired firebrand named Hugh Wolff, the go-getter who might just turn this orchestra into a state treasure. New Jersey does not come to mind as a state with a strong arts profile. In the past, a few haphazard attempts have been made to give it some arts sense over the years, usually built around its more than 60-year-old orchestra.

It had kicked about for years with lesser luminaries of the conducting world at its head, until it proudly announced Henry Lewis as its music director in the 1970s. Lewis was going to bring a new look, a new prestige, to the orchestra. Lewis was going to bring in a new audience. Lewis was going to put New Jersey on the cultural map.

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What actually happened, though, was that Lewis used the ensemble to give himself New York conducting dates. After all, Carnegie Hall was but a short trip across the Hudson. After nearly sinking the institution financially with tours, New York series, pricey soloists, etc., Lewis resigned, and the New Jersey Symphony practically disappeared.

A prolonged holding pattern was sustained by the excellent ministrations of several conductors, most recently George Manahan. Now Wolff has taken over the reins, and New Jerseyites have something really convincing to cheer about.

Wolff is not unknown in conducting circles. He was appointed the Exxon/Arts Endowment Conductor of the National Symphony Orchestra in Washington, D.C. Mstislav Rostropovich took him under his wing, and eventually Wolff became that orchestra's associate conductor. He also had one of those last-minute-substitution triumphs that set talent mavens atwitter.

And now he is taking over an orchestra desperately in need of vital leadership and someone fresh. That its home (in the cavernous Mosque Theatre) is just across the river from Carnegie Hall is no liability, though that river is quite a divide for the very New York press so many artists spend their careers trying to impress. Thus, Wolff is close enough for the curious to take a peek if they are so inclined, yet far enough that he can try his wings in any sort of repertoire away from the scrutiny of that courted-yet-dreaded press.

He inaugurated his music directorship last Sunday with a marathon all-Beethoven concert -- a re-creation, as it were, of a disastrous four-hour 1808 Vienna concert the composer had mounted to raise money for himself. The Newark concert, too, was a fund-raiser, in two parts -- with a gala dinner in between -- altogether more successful artistically than Beethoven's ill-fated affair.

One sensed in the hall a faithful audience that had loyally suffered through the fallow years, anxiously wanting to like their new maestro. The audience was clearly delighted to find that he could accompany with consideration, yet suffuse the Fifth Symphony with the right sort of passion and fire.

The standing ovation Wolff received for both concerts was at once a welcome to him, an outpouring of gratitude that long-range hopes were not going to be misplaced, and also a spontaneous gesture of self-congratulation (in the best sense of the word) for having stuck it out so long for just this sort of reward.

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The concerts were very, very good. True, Nansi Carroll's lyric soprano lacked the cutting edge to make the concert aria ``Ah, Perfido!'' really communicate something in the hall's acoustics. True, Andr'e-Michel Schub's clenched style of musicmaking limited the poetry and expansive beauty of the Fourth Concerto. And true, David Buechner's careless perusal (despite his use of music) of the flashy piano contribution to the ``Choral Fantasy'' had little to do with the musical integrity of this event.

Nevertheless, Hugh Wolff's contributions were of the highest order. The New Jersey Symphony plays better than several domestic and foreign orchestras I can think of -- which is not to say there isn't considerable room for improvement. Still, in the Fifth and Sixth Symphonies, they played with commitment and relish.

Wolff's views of both pieces were not as volatile as one might expect -- but caution with his sort of musicianly care is preferable to excess without self-control that one too often encounters in young maestros.

Just as important, he possesses a disarming charm when talking to a crowd, which will hold him in good stead as a public spokesman for both the arts in New Jersey and for his new orchestra.

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