Jens Nygaard

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The Independent Online

Jens Nygaard, conductor: born Stephens, Arkansas 26 October 1931; died New York 24 September 2001.

Jens Nygaard was the kind of unlikely individual without whom music would be much the poorer. There can't be many conductors who recover from incarceration in a mental hospital and homelessness to found their own orchestra and steer it to a central position in one of the world's great cities. With the Jupiter Symphony – the New York orchestra he established in 1979 – this perpetual outsider finally conquered.

Nygaard – the son of a Danish clarinettist who had played in Sousa's band and a Scottish mother who was his first piano teacher – was born in Arkansas and never lost the accent that proclaimed his roots. He was a musical prodigy, learning to play all the instruments of the orchestra as well as the piano, and he majored in clarinet (with second-study piccolo and cello) at the Louisiana State University, where he had won a scholarship. Occasional performances as a violinist with the Baton Rouge Symphony Orchestra and a position as a church organist helped eke out his student existence.

In 1953 his streak of contrariness showed when Woody Herman gave a concert at the university – "He let me sit in and later asked me to go on the road as his pianist. I turned him down: I didn't want to give up the scholarship" – although it was an opportunity most young musicians would have leapt at. In 1955, after a year in a dance band in Dallas, Nygaard's struggles with the establishment began at the Juilliard School of Music in New York, where he had signed up as a piano student; when the Dean refused to let him join the conducting courses, he taught himself and organised his own concerts.

In 1959, two years after his graduation as a pianist and a year after his master's, also taken at the Juilliard, Nygaard suffered the mental breakdown that had him committed to a state institution for several months; on his release he found himself homeless and slept in what is now the Richard Tucker Park, across the road from the Juilliard: "It was mostly junkies then. I wasn't a junkie but I was certainly homeless. I slept on a bench, dreaming of Mozart."

A cellist friend came to his rescue with the offer of a back room in his flat in Harlem. In spite of his circumstances he raised thousands of dollars to preserve the home in which George Gershwin had been born.

Nygaard found employment and accommodation at International House, at Columbia University, where he ran the music programme in return for the roof over his head. Backstage at Carnegie Hall he made the acquaintance of Dimitri Mitropoulos, conductor of the New York Philharmonic, who "told me I would be a conductor one day, and I've been grateful to him ever since".

Over the next two decades Nygaard built up a quiet reputation conducting concerts in and around New York. The foundation of the Jupiter Symphony ("I chose Jupiter because Mozart is God incarnate, and that's the name given to his last symphony, and also because Nasa had recently sent Voyager 1 to Jupiter") came in 1979, when the Carnegie Hall asked him to assemble a scratch orchestra to replace a cancelled booking. He pulled together a band of students and young musicians and wondered whether there might be a future for the group.

The good reviews he received generated a $35,000 grant from the Rockefeller Foundation, which didn't last long: the Jupiter Symphony stumbled from one financial difficulty to the next, exacerbated by Nygaard's insistence on giving a third of the orchestra's performances for charities for the blind, deaf, homeless and other such causes. Some complained that he exploited his young musicians, paying them virtually nothing. He aimed at $50 per engagement but couldn't always make it: "After one concert I gave each of them 12 subway tokens and a copy of Shakespeare's sonnets."

But they played for him because, as the pianist Seymour Lipkin, a regular soloist with the orchestra, said, "he loves the music and he conveys that love to them. And because he is so anxious to give credit to people when they do well" – sometimes to the point of asking particular musicians to take a bow between movements. The soloists played for next to nothing; on occasion they even left a cheque with the orchestra.

Concerts from Alice Tully Hall cost more than they raised in ticket sales, necessitating the brief disbandment of the orchestra in 1992, before Nygaard got it going again by playing first in one church and then in another, the Good Shepherd Presbyterian Church on the Upper West Side, which became their permanent home. He raised his money from some unexpected sources. Early one morning in a Starbucks café he met the president of ABC, Robert Iger, and, not knowing who he was, told him about the Jupiter Symphony. Iger sent a cheque for $5,000.

In the early 1970s he established a chamber-music series, "Music with Jens Nygaard", to perform music he thought unjustly neglected. His Jupiter programming was likewise adventurous and innovative, exploring Czerny, Reinecke and other forgotten proto-Romantics, reviving forgotten Mozart (Leopold as well as Wolfgang); earlier this year he conducted Donald Tovey's Cello Concerto, an hour-long, lyrical disquisition that comes close to overstaying its welcome – but Nygaard had been waiting to do the work for 35 years and do it he would.

Nygaard's devotion to music as an instrumental of social improvement was deeply held, and demonstrated in the deed. Over the course of two years he played and conducted the 30 Mozart piano concertos for an elderly YMHA in Spanish Harlem, and for the past few years the Jupiter has been playing in a school for underprivileged children in the Bronx:

We let the kids sit in among the musicians and pretend to play. Then we let them handle the instruments. They just love it. In fact, they became so enthusiastic that some local fellow who runs a gypsy cab fleet donated $30,000 to buy them all instruments and music lessons.

That tale is a perfect illustration of Nygaard's view of the purpose of music: "to enhance the lives of fellow human beings".

Martin Anderson