Miles Hoffman

Host, Writer

Violist Miles Hoffman is founder and artistic director of The American Chamber  Players.  He made his New York recital debut in 1979 at the 92nd Street Y and has since appeared frequently around the country in recital, as chamber musician, and as soloist with many orchestras.  In 1982 he founded the Library of Congress Summer Chamber Festival, which he directed for nine years, and which led to the formation of the American Chamber Players. His musical commentary, “Coming to Terms,” was heard weekly throughout the United States for thirteen years – from 1989 to 2002 – on NPR’s Performance Today, and now, as Music Commentator for National Public Radio’s flagship news program, Morning Edition, he is regularly heard by a national audience of nearly 14 million people.  Mr. Hoffman is the author of The NPR Classical Music Companion: Terms and Concepts from A to Z, now in its tenth printing from the Houghton Mifflin Company.  He is a graduate of Yale University and the Juilliard School, and in 2003 he was awarded an honorary Doctor of Humane Letters degree from Centenary College of Louisiana in recognition of his achievements as a performer and educator. Violist Miles Hoffman is founder and artistic director of The American Chamber  Players and artistic director of the Peace Chamber Program at the Peace Center, in Greenville, SC. He is the host of two of South Carolina Public Radio's national productions, The Spoleto Chamber Series, and A Minute with Miles.

Ways to Connect

The Lure of Music

Feb 16, 2018
A Minute with Miles
SC Public Radio/Mary Noble Ours

In 1918 the music critic Olin Downes published a book called The Lure of Music.  It’s a collection of biographical sketches of famous composers, and it includes listening suggestions, samples of the composers’ works on Columbia records. Most of the composers Downes writes about—people such as Verdi, Chopin, Berlioz, Dvorák—are among the immortals… They were famous then and they’ll always remain famous. But what’s fascinating to me is that I know hardly any of the performers’ names on the recordings. 


Heartless Musicians

Feb 15, 2018
A Minute with Miles
SC Public Radio/Mary Noble Ours

Many years ago I was having dinner with a group of colleagues when the name of a viola player we all knew came up. When I mentioned that this violist had just had his third heart attack, the instantaneous response from an old-timer across the table was, “Really? I didn’t know he had a heart.” As it happens, the heartless violist in question was not a terribly good player, to put it mildly. But we musicians have all known people we’ve found to be thoroughly unpleasant, even cruel, or thoroughly insipid and boring, who walk on stage and play or sing beautifully, movingly. How is this possible? 


Counterpoint

Feb 14, 2018
A Minute with Miles
SC Public Radio/Mary Noble Ours

Counterpoint, also called polyphony, is the art, in musical composition, of combining two or more simultaneous lines of music. The word counterpoint comes from the Latin punctus contra punctum, meaning “note against note,” and the adjective derived from the word counterpoint is contrapuntal.  Now you might ask, why isn’t it called contrapuntal writing when a melody is combined with an accompaniment? The answer is that in contrapuntal writing, the simultaneous musical lines are distinct and independent—each is a theme or melody that could stand alone. 


Pizzicato

Feb 13, 2018
A Minute with Miles
SC Public Radio/Mary Noble Ours

There are many musical terms that get translated into several languages, depending on the native language of the composer who’s using the terms. The Italian term Allegro, for example, might appear as “Lively,” in English, or “Vif,” in French, or “Lebhaft,” in German. But there’s one musical term that for some reason you’ll only ever see…or hear…in the original Italian, and that’s Pizzicato. Pizzicato is the Italian word for “plucked.” To play pizzicato on a stringed instrument means to make the notes sound by plucking the strings with the fingers, rather than by using the bow. 


Program Music

Feb 12, 2018
A Minute with Miles
SC Public Radio/Mary Noble Ours

“Program music” is instrumental music that attempts to tell a story, paint a scene or picture, or convey impressions of a character, place, or event. But no matter how sonically descriptive, music is always open to a range of interpretations—sometimes far removed from the composer’s intentions—and no two people will ever hear the same work in exactly the same way. I’ll go further: in most cases, without descriptive titles we wouldn’t have the first foggiest clue of what an instrumental piece was supposed to be “about.” And what does “about” even mean, when it comes to music?


Hayes and Olivier

Feb 9, 2018
A Minute with Miles
SC Public Radio/Mary Noble Ours

Your strange job as a performing artist—musician, actor, or dancer—is to immerse yourself completely in the work of art you’re performing—to lose yourself, in a sense—and yet at all times to remain aware of precisely what you’re doing and how you’re doing it. It’s not easy, and sometimes the process—which is complicated to begin with—becomes downright mysterious. I once heard the actress Helen Hayes tell a story about Sir Laurence Olivier. She was performing in a play with Olivier, and one night he give a performance that was absolutely staggering—especially brilliant even for him. 


Finales

Feb 8, 2018
A Minute with Miles
SC Public Radio/Mary Noble Ours

Throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries in classical music, the final movements of instrumental pieces—the finales—were almost always in fast tempos, and they usually ended loud, and emphatically. No matter where the rest of the piece had taken us, the finale was meant to provide a resolution, a sense that we’d just heard a complete work of art, a satisfyingly complete narrative, with a beginning, a middle, and—in no uncertain terms—an end.  There was a kind of affirmative philosophy underlying the composer’s work, and a projection of certainty: I know what I meant to say, I’ve said it, and there’s value in my having said it. 


A Minute with Miles
SC Public Radio/Mary Noble Ours

Outdoor concerts can be delightful, especially when the music and the natural surroundings make a perfect mix. Then again, when you’re playing outdoors, things sometimes happen that wouldn’t ever happen in the   concert hall—and I’m not just talking about thunderstorms. I’m thinking of a concert I played many years ago at a festival in France. The setting was beautiful—we were in a valley in the Alps—and the music was Schubert’s “Trout” Quintet. What could be better? The performance received an unexpected interruption, however, when a Labrador retriever puppy decided to run up on stage and say hello to all the musicians, wiggling his cute little hind quarters at the audience the whole time. 


Repeats in Music

Feb 6, 2018
A Minute with Miles
SC Public Radio/Mary Noble Ours

Composers often call for repeats, in their music, for whole sections of their pieces to be played twice. And the question is: what’s the point? One answer is that the repeat helps the listener remember the musical material. But more important, I think, is that the second time through a section always has different meaning, and meanings, precisely because we’ve already heard it once. A return—no matter if it’s to a person, a place, or an experience—always feels very different from a first meeting. 


The Harp

Feb 5, 2018
A Minute with Miles
SC Public Radio/Mary Noble Ours

If you have a chance to attend an orchestra concert anytime soon and one of the pieces on the program calls for a harp, make sure to watch the harpist’s feet. They’ll be busy. The modern concert harp has forty seven strings, but it also has seven foot pedals, each of which controls one set of strings for each note of the scale. The A pedal, for example, controls all the A strings on the harp, and can change their length so that they sound A-natural or A-sharp or A-flat. As they play, harpists have to set and reset their pedals constantly—and quickly—to prepare for the notes that are coming up.


Prima Donna

Feb 2, 2018
A Minute with Miles
SC Public Radio/Mary Noble Ours

Of the many musical terms that have made their way into general usage, one of the most colorful—and useful—is Prima donna.  These days the term gets applied to anyone with an oversized ego—man or woman—but in Italian it simply means “first lady,” and it’s been in use since the 1600's as the title for the singer of an opera’s principal female role. By the 1700's the term was already associated with the artistic and commercial cult of the glamorous leading lady—a cult that met with little protest from the leading ladies themselves—and some prima donnas demanded to be called prima donna assoluta, “absolute leading lady.” 


A Minute with Miles
SC Public Radio/Mary Noble Ours

I’d like to read you part of an interesting job application letter. It was originally in French:

“My Lord, As I had the honor of playing before Your Royal Highness… and as I observed that You took some pleasure in the small talent that heaven has given me for music, and [as] You honoured me with a command to send You some pieces of my composition, I now…take the liberty of presenting [you] with the present concertos… humbly praying You not to judge their imperfections by the severity of the fine and delicate taste that every one knows You to have for music …”


Musicians' Nightmares

Jan 31, 2018
A Minute with Miles
SC Public Radio/Mary Noble Ours

I can’t say for sure, but I would guess that most people have had what might be called recurring anxiety dreams… the kinds of dreams in which you find yourself in public with no clothes on, or about to take a test in a subject you’ve never studied. People’s anxiety dreams tend to be tailored to their particular personalities, circumstances, and experiences, and often to their particular professions. 


Master Classes

Jan 30, 2018
A Minute with Miles
SC Public Radio/Mary Noble Ours

master class is a public lesson. A distinguished teacher—that would be the master—works with a student on a piece of music, but the teacher isn’t the student’s regular teacher, and instead of the lesson taking place in a private studio, it takes place in front of an audience. It’s a kind of double performance—the student is performing for the audience, but so is the teacher. And the idea is that whatever the teacher has to offer will be of value to both the student and the observers. 


Gabriel Faure

Jan 29, 2018
A Minute with Miles
SC Public Radio/Mary Noble Ours

Gabriel Fauré is often referred to as one of the greatest  French composers of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. But I wonder if that description goes far enough. It’s certainly true that his contributions to French music, especially in the areas of chamber music, piano music, and music for the voice -- are remarkable. But they’re remarkable because they’re wonderful music, not because they’re French. 


A Minute with Miles
SC Public Radio/Mary Noble Ours

J.S. Bach composed his St. Matthew Passion in 1727. But for the better part of a century after that, the piece essentially disappeared, unknown to all but a few specialists. One of those specialists was the composer Carl Friedrich Zelter, who was the music teacher of a boy named Felix Mendelssohn. Mendelssohn was only about fourteen when his grandmother gave him a copy of the full score of the St. Matthew Passion – a score she had borrowed from Zelter…. 


A Minute with Miles
SC Public Radio/Mary Noble Ours

I find it fascinating that many of the greatest composers of the 19th century—composers such as Berlioz, Schumann, Chopin, Mendelssohn, Wagner, Brahms, Dvorák, and Tchaikovsky—knew one another, and in many cases had very friendly personal and musical relationships. Schumann, for example, wrote his piano quintet for his wife, Clara, a great piano virtuoso…and Clara played the first public performance of the piece. 


A Minute with Miles
SC Public Radio/Mary Noble Ours

In 1950 a musicologist named Wolfgang Schmieder published an enormous catalogue of J.S. Bach’s works, but Schmieder organized it by category, that is, by type of composition, not by date of composition. The catalogue is known in German as the Bach-Werke-Verzeichnis, or BWV, and that’s why you often see Bach’s works listed in programs with their BWV numbers. 


Concert Etiquette

Jan 23, 2018
A Minute with Miles
SC Public Radio/Mary Noble Ours

Concert etiquette. It’s really just a matter of common sense and good manners. If you think you may be at risk of a coughing or sneezing fit, sit on the end of a row, not in the middle. If you’re bringing a child to the concert and the child tends to fidget, sit in the back, not the front. Don’t take pictures or make videos if you’ve been asked not to or if you may be blocking somebody else’s view, and don’t use a flash even if you haven’t been asked not to. 


A Minute with Miles
SC Public Radio/Mary Noble Ours

Do you find traveling glamorous? Sitting around in airports, waiting in lines, carrying luggage, eating in unfamiliar places, sleeping in unfamiliar beds? Well imagine doing that for about ten months a year, and imagine doing it alone, while having to prove, over and over again every single week, that you’re one of the best in the world at what you do.


Paradox of Integrity

Jan 19, 2018
A Minute with Miles
SC Public Radio/Mary Noble Ours

Musicians, like actors, have to deal with something a drama teacher once called the “paradox of integrity.” On the one hand, you have to be completely “in character” when you’re performing—moved yourself by the music in order to make it moving for others, and merged with the music, in a way… almost submerged in it. 


Conflict

Jan 18, 2018
A Minute with Miles
SC Public Radio/Mary Noble Ours

I won’t mention any names, but many years ago there was a great string quartet that was famous for its members not getting along. People joked that it was a tragedy for this quartet if they showed up in a town that only had three hotels. I don’t know if we can blame this particular quartet, but one theory that took hold was that the best results for chamber music groups are produced by conflict, and the resolution of conflict. 


Pronunciation

Jan 17, 2018
A Minute with Miles
SC Public Radio/Mary Noble Ours

Classical music lovers tend to worry about correct pronunciation, so here are a few refreshers that I hope will be helpful.

In America, people who play the flute call themselves flutists, not flautists, and we who play the viola, which looks like vie-ola, are called violists.

Handel’s Messiah was written by Handel, not Hondle, and though you can say Haendel if you’re feeling German, Handel himself changed it to Handel, so I’d stick with that. 


A Minute with Miles
SC Public Radio/Mary Noble Ours

If you’re allergic to highly technical program notes for classical music concerts, you’re not alone. Most musicians I know find such notes boring and irrelevant, and most non-musicians find them useless, not to mention seriously off-putting. Well, it turns out it’s an old problem, as I discovered when I read a wonderful essay by George Bernard Shaw from 1896. 


A Minute with Miles
SC Public Radio/Mary Noble Ours

Walter Pater was an influential 19th-century English author and critic, and in 1870 he wrote a fascinating essay about the Italian Renaissance painter Sandro Botticelli. In one passage that particularly caught my eye, Pater wrote, “If [Botticelli] painted religious incidents, [he] painted them with an undercurrent of original sentiment, which touches you as the real matter of the picture through the veil of its ostensible subject.” 


Interpretation

Jan 12, 2018
A Minute with Miles
SC Public Radio/Mary Noble Ours

Composers write pieces, and performers perform them. But for the performers, just about everything the composer writes, with the exception of the notes themselves, is a matter of interpretation. The composer indicates that a passage should be played softly? Fine. But how softly? It should get louder? Okay, but how much louder? Faster, slower? – same thing, it’s a matter of interpretation and personal taste. 


A Minute with Miles
SC Public Radio/Mary Noble Ours

The body length of a full-size violin is about 14 inches, give or take a very small fraction. This is a standard length, and an optimum length, arrived at by trial and error over many years by the great violin makers of history. Violas, on the other hand, have no standard length. For the pitch range and acoustics of the viola there probably is an optimum length, but whatever it is, it’s way too great for the instrument still to be held up and played under the chin. 


Looking at Conductors

Jan 10, 2018
A Minute with Miles
SC Public Radio/Mary Noble Ours

The other day, a friend asked me if orchestral musicians really look at the conductor when they’re playing. It’s an interesting question, because after all, how can you look at your music and play all the right notes if you’re also looking up at the person waving the baton? The answer is that you do both, but not always in the same proportion and not always at the same time. There are times—the beginnings of pieces, for example, or at other times when the music starts or stops, or when the tempo changes, when you have to look directly at the conductor. 


A Minute with Miles
SC Public Radio/Mary Noble Ours

I’m guessing you haven’t thought much about this, but one of the things we musicians have to put up with is calluses. Not feeling sympathetic? But what if the calluses are peeling, or bleeding, or have bruises under or around them, or make you look like you’ve been attacked by a vampire? You can probably guess that string players have calluses on the tips of the fingers of their left hands, and you’ve seen the indelible marks on the necks of violinists and violists. 


A Minute with Miles
SC Public Radio/Mary Noble Ours

In music, the terms “high” and “low,” as in “high notes” and “low notes,” “high pitched” and “low pitched,” are metaphors. High and low may be used to describe frequencies, or the relative position of printed notes on a musical staff, but printed notes are themselves merely symbols, not sounds, and frequencies and their measurements don’t actually have height. In reality, high notes are not physically higher, not farther from the surface of the earth, than low notes. 


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