Hugh Wolff - Making music is always about moving people

The Queen Elisabeth Competition for piano is starting its last, most exciting week. Six pianists will try to convince the jury in as many concerts. Time to have a talk with Hugh Wolff, chief-conductor of the Belgian National Orchestra and the one responsible for guiding both the soloists and the orchestra safely through the coming week.

Following the edition of 2019, this is the second Queen Elisabeth Competition you will conduct. Have you ever participated in competitions yourself?

Years ago, when I was a young pianist, I entered many competitions, from small local ones to the Montreal International Musical Competition in 1976. Because they require so much repertoire, competitions are very helpful in motivating young players to work in a very focused way. Of course, they are always subjective so if you lose (and most will lose – there is only one top prize), you must be resilient and look for a positive message to help you move forward.

The Queen Elisabeth Competition shows a new generation of musicians. How much has the music scene changed compared to 20 years ago? Is it necessary to participate in competitions to launch your career as a soloist?

Competitions are just one way to launch a career. There are many examples of top soloists who never won a competition: Yo-Yo Ma, Joshua Bell, Gil Shaham, Steven Isserlis, for example. There is no question that the technical level of playing is extremely high today, perhaps higher than 20 years ago, but a career is made from more than technical excellence.

Can you give us a short introduction to the imposed work D’un Jardin Féerique written by Bruno Mantovani?

The Mantovani is a lovely piece – atmospheric and elegant. It has some colors from Ravel and Messiaen, and perhaps takes its inspiration from the movement of Ravel’s Ma Mère l’Oye titled Le jardin féérique. It is quite difficult for the soloists, especially because it is notated in a way that is hard to read and leaves many details for each soloist to work out – for example, how to distribute the notes between the two hands.

The big difference this year is that a live audience is missing. For the candidates, it will be stressful to play only for the jury and some cameras. How will you try to bring in some warmth nonetheless?

We approach this event like six concerts – we are simply introducing six very gifted young artists to a curious audience. Making music is always about moving and delighting people. A competition is no different. With or without public in the hall, this is our mission. And the jury, like any audience, will want to be moved, not just hear technical perfection.

Three finalists have the Russian nationality and they all play a Russian concerto. And do you have to be a Russian to play Russian music?

These are all international young artists. The three Russians now live in Germany, Bulgaria, and Russia, the two Japanese finalists live in Hannover and Paris. I do not believe there is a secret to Russian music that only Russian players know! But, of course, you are influenced by the music you hear growing up and so some candidates will choose the most familiar repertoire.

How difficult will it be for you and the orchestra members to hear – and accept - the jury’s verdict?

Of course, every member of the orchestra is listening just like the jury and we will all have our opinions. We will certainly not all agree! My job is to make sure that every finalist has the best and most comfortable experience possible under these very stressful circumstances. We want only for each of them to be able to show their very best playing.

Are the winning soloists also the best partners for working together with as a conductor and orchestra?

Winning a competition, being a soloist who is easy to perform with, or a soloist who is more complicated – these qualities are completely independent of each other. The soloists who are the easiest to work with are usually those who value and have played a lot of chamber music. That sort of collaboration makes for good concerto performances, but it is not the only way for a soloist to play!

Lots of success with the competition!