Until 2001, maverick conductor Jens Nygaard was a legendary presence in the New York music world and his influence echoes to this day. Life on Jupiter chronicles Jens Nygaard’s journey from child prodigy in rural Arkansas to conducting at New York’s Carnegie Hall. In this highly intimate portrait, Jens speaks of his life, philosophy and career with charm and candor. The footage documents several of his performances, intercut with interviews with performers, students, critics and supporters. The work he did with this orchestra drew the highest praise from Manhattan’s toughest critics, including Harold Schonberg and Martin Bookspan who both proclaimed him a genius.
Some of the more intriguing aspects of Life on Jupiter are the questions raised by Jens’ tireless pursuit of perfection. His missions – striving to create the perfect orchestra, reviving forgotten music, performing for the homeless, staging concerts in disaster zones – may seem outright quixotic, but through it all he sustained respect and admiration, even awe. In this film, those feelings are reinforced by the exceptional concert excerpts we hear and the heartfelt interviews with the highly accomplished musicians Ruth Laredo, William Wolfram, and Joel Krosnick of the Juilliard String Quartet.
His journey led to homelessness, mental illness, and years of rejection before triumph arrived in the form of his Jupiter Symphony Orchestra. In spite of experiencing difficult health issues throughout his career, unlike many disappointed artists, Jens never gave up his will to conduct, continuing to perform to the end, even while fighting multiple myeloma cancer.
After his death in 2001, Jens Nygaard’s Jupiter Symphony Orchestra continued as a world class chamber group known as The Jupiter Symphony Chamber Players, and in A Coda For Jupiter we see the impact a great creative force can have on succeeding generations. A large number of the current musicians worked with Jens over the years and, in A Coda for Jupiter, we see them playing concert excerpts and hear them speak of the high importance they attach to Jens’ influence on their musicianship and current careers.
Under the inspired direction of his widow, Mei Ying Nygaard, devoted fans continue to attend the bi-weekly concerts at the Good Shepherd Church, adjacent to but just outside the Lincoln Center, New York.
Independent documentary filmmaker, Martin Spinelli, made the Jens Nygaard Legacy video program to bring the Jupiter Symphony’s hard won success story to wider audiences. The tale of this unique conductor, his magnificent orchestra and the ongoing Chamber Group is now ready for sale on VIMEO and DVD for educational and home viewer distribution.
“Jens Nygaard is a complete musician . . . Nygaard is unique. Every one of his concerts is a musical adventure of a kind so lacking in standard orchestra concerts here and almost anywhere else. May he thrive!”
Harold C. Schonberg
Music Critic for the New York Times
The New York Times
September 26, 2001
Jens Nygaard, the Quixotic Conductor of the Jupiter Symphony, Dies at 69
By ALLAN KOZINN
Jens 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 readings.
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 coming back.
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.
Jens Nygaard's Sister
Tribute to Jens Nygaard
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.