Nygaard, the enterprising conductor who founded the Jupiter Symphony and
built a devoted audience for it, died on Monday at his home in
Manhattan. He was 69.
Mei Ying, his companion, said the cause was complications from
multiple myelomas, which are tumors of the bone marrow.
Mr. Nygaard described himself as a maverick outsider — an Arkansas
farm boy who came to New York and spent his life fighting an indifferent
musical establishment. His battles began with his altercations with the
administration at the Juilliard School in the 1950's. Mr. Nygaard, who
was enrolled as a piano student, tried to get into the conducting
program, and when he failed to win a place, organized concerts of his
own outside the school. During much of his early career he was homeless
and slept on park benches or stayed at a friend's unheated apartment in
Harlem. Yet during that time, he raised thousands of dollars to help
save George Gershwin's birthplace.
Mr. Nygaard formed the Jupiter Symphony in 1979 by parlaying
enthusiastic reviews into a grant from the Rockefeller Foundation. But
when the foundation helped assemble a board to raise more money and
establish sound business procedures, Mr. Nygaard disbanded the board,
insisting that he run the orchestra his own way. For years he raised
money to keep the Jupiter going, but it had to disband briefly in 1992.
He revived it by using churches instead of concert halls.
"So many people in the New York musical establishment have told
me, `You'll never make it in New York, you idealistic hillbilly, why
don't you go back to Arkansas and teach?' " Mr. Nygaard once told
an interviewer, speaking with the Southwestern twang he retained all his
life. "Now that I have made it, none of them knows quite how to
deal with me."
But there was always a certain charm to Mr. Nygaard's image as a
quixotic loner and something inspiring about his determination to
explore rarely heard early works by Mozart and present virtually
unplayed music by 19th-century composers like Louis Spohr, Ethelbert
Nevin and Carl Czerny. His imaginative programs won the respect of many
critics and musicians, and he was able to persuade well-known players to
perform as soloists with the Jupiter. He was often able to persuade his
soloists to accept greatly reduced fees; sometimes he even coaxed
donations from them.
Admiration for Mr. Nygaard was by no means unanimous. Some musicians
who worked with him complained that he hired mostly students or recent
graduates who were desperate for work and that he drove them hard in
rehearsals for virtually no salary. His payment could be downright
eccentric: once he gave each player a dozen subway tokens and a book of
Shakespeare's sonnets. But however much they grumbled about his
rehearsal techniques, the musicians responded with energetic, vital
Mr. Nygaard was born in Stephens, Ark., on Oct. 26, 1931. His mother
was Scottish and gave him his first piano lessons; his father was Danish
and had played the clarinet in vaudeville acts and with John Philip
Sousa's band. Besides the piano, Mr. Nygaard studied the clarinet,
piccolo and cello, and was able to make his way around most of the other
orchestral instruments when he enrolled at Louisiana State University on
a clarinet scholarship in 1948. During his student years, he also played
violin in the Baton Rouge Symphony and was a church organist.
After his graduation, Mr. Nygaard went to Dallas and worked in a
dance band for about a year. He moved to New York in 1954 and enrolled
at Juilliard. He completed his bachelor's degree there in 1957 and his
master's in 1958. But he found Juilliard frustrating; in addition to his
failure to enter the school's conducting program, he said he was
prevented from playing violin in the student orchestra because the
administration wanted him to focus on the piano.
"As much as I love playing the piano," he told an
interviewer in 1982, "I just wasn't one of those people who could
sit down and practice Liszt concertos hour after hour. My mind is too
freewheeling. I love all of music, and I wanted to do it all. But what
happened was, I didn't get a chance to do anything."
Mr. Nygaard's response was to create his own opportunities. He began
studying conducting on his own and working as an accompanist and coach.
In January 1956, he put together a student ensemble to play a concert
commemorating the 200th anniversary of Mozart's birth. And he began
hanging around backstage at Carnegie Hall, where the New York
Philharmonic then gave its concerts, hoping to meet the conductor
Dimitri Mitropoulos. He eventually succeeded, and although he never
studied formally with Mitropoulos, they struck up a friendship that Mr.
Nygaard always described as encouraging and influential.
In 1959 Mr. Nygaard had a mental breakdown and was briefly
institutionalized, but by the early 1960's he was back in the thick of
musical life. From 1964 to 1967 he directed a Music in Our Time series
at Columbia University, and in the early 60's he conducted the Hudson
Valley Symphony, in Tarrytown, N.Y., and the Westchester Symphony, in
White Plains. In 1965, he started an ensemble of his own, the
Westchester Chamber Chorus and Orchestra, which he periodically took to
New York City. Among its memorable programs were those that included
concert versions of two early Mozart operas, "Apollo et Hyacinthus"
and "Il Rè Pastore." During the 1974-75 season, he offered a
series in which he played and conducted all of Mozart's piano concertos.
Still, it was his interest in obscure works and composers that won
him the most attention. In the early 70's, he began exploring this
repertory in a chamber music series called "Music With Jens
Nygaard," in which he was the pianist, joined as needed by members
of the New York Philharmonic and young freelancers.
His single-concert theme programs were more successful. To celebrate
Fritz Kreisler's centenary in 1975, he presented a chamber concert that
included a few violin favorites as well as oddities like selections from
Kreisler's stage musical, "Apple Blossoms"; a Fantasie that he
composed at age 8; and "The Valiants of Wisconsin," a college
fight song that Kreisler composed for a friend. Other "Music With
Jens Nygaard" concerts included compositions by Mitropoulos, Szell
and the musicologist Donald Francis Tovey.
Those concerts won Mr. Nygaard a reputation as an innovative
programmer, but were not advancing his conducting career. By 1977, he
had resolved to give up the musical life and take a job on an African
game reserve. But he decided to undertake a make-or-break effort with a
varied program — Beethoven, Handel, Stravinsky, Saint-Saëns and Mr.
Nygaard's own orchestration of a Spanish Renaissance motet — with the
Westchester Chamber Symphony. The concert won glowing reviews, which Mr.
Nygaard took to the Rockefeller Foundation.
In 1979, with a $35,000 grant from the foundation and the help of two
colleagues, Mary Alderdice, a harpsichordist, and Sid Fried, a violist,
Mr. Nygaard started the Jupiter Symphony. The source of the name was
Mozart, whose Symphony No. 41, the "Jupiter," was offered on
the orchestra's first program. In a brilliant marketing stroke, Mr.
Nygaard obtained permission from NASA to use a photograph of the planet
Jupiter beamed back by the Voyager I spacecraft. Eye-catching posters
and brochures with the orange planet against the blackness of space
attracted curious concertgoers, and his offbeat programming kept them
The orchestra was never financially sound. But Mr. Nygaard was always
able to find donors to help cover another concert or another season.
Through it all, he never altered his style, which involved folksy
orations between works — usually about the music, sometimes about the
soloists and occasionally about the orchestra's financial plight — and
conducted with a restless energy that sometimes led him to pace around
the conducting area (he didn't use a podium) during performances. Nor
did he ever abandon his taste for unappreciated repertory. Recent
concerts included works by Johann Christian Bach, Carl Reinecke, Leopold
Mozart and Carl Busch, a Danish composer who knew Mr. Nygaard's family.
"I never programmed a piece I was not completely, 100-percent
committed to," Mr. Nygaard said. "And I'm fortunate because I
can love a Stephen Foster song, a Spohr symphony, a Caccini motet and a
Beethoven symphony equally."
He made a point of devoting some of his work with the Jupiter
Symphony to charitable causes. More than one third of each season's
concerts were in hospitals or community centers for the blind, the
elderly or the poor. In recent years, the Jupiter Symphony has also
become involved in an educational program that has attracted a $30,000
grant to buy instruments for schoolchildren.
Although the Jupiter was Mr. Nygaard's principal focus, he was also
director of the Naumburg Symphony Orchestra in the early 80's and taught
at Columbia University Teachers College in 1981 and 1982.
In addition to Ms. Ying, he is survived by a brother, Thomas Max
Nygaard, of Dallas, and a half-sister, Susan Keith, of Magnolia, Ark.
Vol. 158 No. 16
BY HARRIET BAROVICK, ELLIN MARTENS, JULIE RAWE, SORA SONG, HEATHER WON
TESORIERO, REBECCA WINTERS
DIED. JENS NYGAARD, 69, defiantly unconventional founder and conductor of
the Jupiter Symphony; of bone-marrow cancer; in New York City. Nygaard's
sweeping knowledge of music gave rise to innovative, widely admired concert
programs, often featuring works by Mozart (such as Symphony No. 41, "Jupiter,"
for which the orchestra was named). Nygaard raised money for the symphony
himself; during one lean period, he paid each of his musicians with subway
tokens and a book of sonnets.
Susan Keith, Jens Nygaard's Sister
Jens was the most talented, loving, and unconventional person I ever knew.
He was 19 when I was born and I was always Susie, his little sister. Thanks
to Mr. Spinelli now, Jens' wonderful life story will be shared by many who
never knew him.
Our daddy was from Denmark and became a phenomenal Vaudeville musician here
in the United States. Jens loved Daddy very, very much and in the early
80's Daddy and I proudly attended a concert at Lincoln Center that Jens
dedicated to him.
When I was little, Jens would come home from New York on the train and we'd
meet him late in the night at Gurdon. I still love the smell of train
exhaust because it reminds me of Jens. On the drive home, I'd snuggle next
to my big brother and drift off into a blissful sleep.
Jens loved to fish and he had his favorite fishing places all around
Stephens. I usually went but I was always a bother because my passion on
these trips was catching frogs and turtles, which was quite incompatible
with serious fishing. But Jens loved me enough to somehow cope and he even
let me pull in the 5 pound bass he once caught now that's real love.
Jens used to tease me about my pet turtle. He threatened to make it into turtle soup and my mom even wrote a cute poem about it. It seriously worried me until he convinced me he was joking.
Jens was a great humanitarian. He'd talk and discuss music at his concerts.
He was in touch with the audiences and allowed them to become participants.
On one concert tour in Pennsylvania, a large group of residents from a
nursing home attended many in wheelchairs and I happened to see Jens go
out BEFORE the concert and shake each person's hand and thank them for
coming. Jens not only brought music to people, he brought people to music.
I heard new stories while we were in New York this week for Jens' memorial
services. Rev. Sonnenberg told of a visit to Jens' home when the doorbell
rang after going to the door, Jens went to his closet and returned with a
pair of his shoes which he gave to the homeless man at the door.
Also at his memorial services I read some of the
things Jens' patrons and friends wrote the most memorable being "I never left
one of his concerts the same person as I was on the way in."
Over the years, Jens introduced me to his
friends some well known and some homeless and not well known. But there was
always that same enthusiasm and respect in his introductions. Jens was equally
at home in Lincoln Center or in our barnyard with the goats.
In 1989 Jens was invited to spend a month as guest conductor for the
Capetown, South Africa symphony. He shocked Capetown by spending his entire conducting fee to bus residents
from the black townships to his concerts. He also bought symphony season
tickets for all black employees of the hotel and as a result of his efforts
the Capetown symphony audience and Musician's Union remain integrated. For
these efforts, he was later made an honorary "Giraffe" by the Giraffe
project a non-profit organization based in Washington, which inspires people
to stick their neck out for the common good.
He called a few years ago very excited about the concert he's just
conducted in Central Park in New York. He told me a cute story about Mayor Guiliani.
Jens had convinced him to guest conduct a bit and after a few lines the Mayor
turned to Jens and whispered, "How do I stop it?"
A few weeks before Jens' death I felt compelled to write Jens and thank him
for all he'd done for me. The list flowed quickly for two pages and could
have gone on but I felt the need to get it to him ASAP. I thanked him for
opening my mind, for sharing his wonderful music with our family, for the
huge valentine I still love that he sent me when I was little girl, for
having my husband and I play in a park concert at Lincoln Center, for buying
me great books, for the love I have for trains, for being a great "Uncle
Bozo" to our three sons his nephews - and more. He called when he
received it and in tears thanked ME.
Jens told me that he hoped he'd live a couple of years more and was working
on this seasons' programming. At the memorial services copies of his
programs for the 2001/2002 season were passed out. There were 60 concerts
including a Nygaard suite for 2 bassoons and a Mozart piano concerto on
which he was the pianist. To his very last breath he was planning great
music. I was just so proud of my brother.
This documentary was remarkably honest in depicting Jens' trials and hard
won successes. Thanks Martin and thanks to all of you for letting me share
just a bit of the Jens Nygaard that I knew and loved.