Just over two years ago, in the midst of the splendors of the Perseid meteor showers that flashed over the high mountains of the Grand Teton range, I penned an obituary for the versatile violist-composer, Vladi Mendelssohn. When the news reached of the untimely passing of yet another viola great, Miles (Mike) Hoffman, an eerie feeling of deja-vu could not be dispelled: this year’s display of heavenly magic was particularly astonishing the night Mike passed away.
To sum up the extraordinary life of a man whose consummate musicianship, uncanny ability to communicate on far-reaching subjects and bewildering array of activities is particularly daunting. Mike was far more than a sum of the many components of his wide-ranging talents: his joie-de-vivre generated energy, his generosity of spirit gave all who met him the feeling that they were at the epicenter of a magical universe. To quote a former chamber music colleague, "every encounter with Mike was transformed into celebration." A dreamer, risk-taker and adventurer, he carved a career that combined viola performance, radio broadcasting, chamber music performance and coaching, public speaking and writing.
His long list of musical accomplishments could fill volumes. A graduate of Yale University and Juilliard School of Music, he was a member of the National Symphony viola section, founder of the American Chamber Players and a popular viola soloist. He served as both Dean and Professor at Converse University’s Petrie School of Music and coached hundreds of students both in solo performance and chamber music.
While critics praised his "noble tone, and insightful interpretations," beyond the kudos, it was Mike’s humanity, his true nobility and limitless kindness that carved an indelible mark on musicians and listeners the world over. Violist-composer Max Raimi, whose compositions enjoy frequent performance by ‘his’ Chicago Symphony, credits Mike’s generosity, "I never thought of myself as a composer, beyond offering some amusement for family and friends, until Mike got my music played at the Library of Congress."
One of his most striking accomplishments was the diversity of his radio broadcasts on NPR, spanning the mid 1980s to the 2020s. His first foray into a medium that he would soon make his own, took place in 1984. With a modicum of Miles-ian brio, Hoffman convinced Martin Goldsmith (in those days a producer at WETA-FM) to engage in an experimental program with a brilliant sidekick, Glen Howard. Hilarity set the stage for such unforgettable characters as the Soviet migraine (émigré) ocarina virtuoso Bubba Offanonanov and Billy Bob Jones ("do you like fish?"). Four decades later, requests for copies of these invocations, later recorded on LP, filled my inbox. When Goldsmith became the host of NPR’s Performance Today, Hoffman took to the air in weekly segments of the popular series "Coming to Terms," proving that irrepressible humor could give way to savvy explanations of every conceivable music-related term or situation.
Applying his burning intellect to writing translated into countless New York Times, Washington Post and LA Times contributions, illuminating forgotten musical corners. Hoffman’s witty and highly informative "The NPR Classical Music Companion: An Essential Guide for Enlightened Listening" (1997) has been reprinted multiple times (Houghton Mifflin). His love of sports, particularly baseball and softball, took the reader down paths where sport and music shared camaraderie as this excerpt from Morning Edition illustrates.
A polyglot blessed with a supernatural ability to speak a dizzying array of languages with inflective perfection, he reveled in mastering local dialects. Parisian chamber music collaborations with violinist Alexis Galpérine brought the house down, especially when concerts were prefaced by 'contes d’Hoffman,' delightful anecdotes replete with musical minutiae surpassing trivia to hold the key to understand complex compositions. His arsenal of Yiddish jokes seemed unlimited along with his ability to retain facts and figures.
Taking on challenges with inimical buoyancy, Mike was a courageous pathfinder who opted to leave the safety of a major orchestral position with the National Symphony in order to strike out (no baseball pun intended) in several directions. He founded and performed in the American Chamber Players, a Washington D.C.-based consortium of like-minded musicians who toured cross-country for decades. Eager to impart knowledge on as many fronts as possible, he engaged in college teaching (University of Maryland; Schwob School of Music; Converse College) and served as Dean of the Music School at the aforementioned college for several years.
In recent podcasts disseminated nationally by South Carolina Public Radio, A Minute with Miles, he distilled information ranging from how professional opera singers master arias in unfamiliar languages (the short answer is IPA, "not the beer, but the International Phonetic Alphabet") to the secrets of wisdom vs. age at the orchestral with gusto. The mini-format was challenging and succeeded to demystify larger musical concepts. An excerpt from the series, seems particular fitting in its analysis of music as a source of comfort:
"One of the things we look for when we’re suffering is empathy, the sense that somebody else understands our feelings. Well, we’re linked with composers by our common humanity, and if a composer has found a compelling way to express his own feelings, then he can’t avoid expressing ours as well. Last but not least, there’s something profoundly comforting in what Joseph Conrad called 'the inexhaustible joy that lives in beauty.' Even in our darkest moments, music reminds us by its own beauty and wonders that life itself can still hold many beauties, and many joys."
"All field, no game" was his father’s critical comment on Mike’s early softball attempts. Considering the breadth of his accomplishments, one might be tempted to amend the comment to "many fields, many games."
Weeping through a performance of his Kol Nidre, it struck me that the chill rains of fall have temporarily obliterated all signs of brightness in the sky. A great musician, educator, writer but above all mensch has left us in temporary darkness. As Mike would have observed, Bach reaches out to provide solace.
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