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

Franz Liszt - Part 1

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

In 1841 Franz Liszt played three concerts in Paris, and afterward he wrote, “My…solo recitals…are unrivaled concerts, such as I alone can give in Europe at the present moment… Without vanity or self-deception, I think I may say that an effect so striking, so complete, so irresistible had never before been produced by an instrumentalist in Paris.” Well, if it’s true it ain’t braggin’, and by all accounts it was true.


Mozart's Optimism

Apr 4, 2018
A Minute with Miles
SC Public Radio/Mary Noble Ours

It’s hard to find a classical music lover who doesn’t love the music of Mozart. It’s when we try to describe why we love Mozart that things can get complicated. We’re describing something indisputably real—our love of Mozart—but unless we stick to strictly technical analyses, we have to use words that will necessarily be both subjective and metaphorical. My own words? I keep coming back to two: humanity and optimism.


Beethoven's Shadow

Apr 3, 2018
A Minute with Miles
SC Public Radio/Mary Noble Ours

For convenience sake, the 19 th century is usually known as the era of Romanticism in classical music. This is not necessarily wrong, but it certainly does lump a great number of composers of very different styles into one broad category. Another way to view the 19 th century is simply as the era of Beethoven. And that’s because after Beethoven, all composers were seen and evaluated in Beethoven’s light, or rather in his enormous shadow.


A Minute with Miles
SC Public Radio/Mary Noble Ours

In 1838, ten years after the death of Franz Schubert, Robert Schumann traveled to Vienna, and while he was there he paid a visit to the graves of Schubert and Beethoven. On a whim, Schumann decided to call on Schubert’s brother, Ferdinand, who was living in Vienna, and this turned out to be perhaps the most fortuitous social call in the history of music.


Density of Brilliance

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

A scientist I know was talking about great works of literature the other day, and she said that what characterized them was the “density of brilliance.” What a wonderful phrase. And how perfect, too, for great works of music. In any five minutes—or any two minutes—of a musical masterpiece, we can find a veritable parade of brilliant ideas. What’s interesting is that the brilliant ideas don’t always sound brilliant.


Debussy the Writer

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

Claude Debussy was a great composer, but like many other famous composers, he was also a wonderful writer. He wrote countless articles of music criticism, and his writing was clever, funny, insightful, highly opinionated, and often wickedly caustic. He wrote some of his articles under the pseudonym Monsieur Croche, which in French means “Mr. Eighth Note,” but whether writing as Monsieur Croche or himself, he was never shy about saying what he thought. 


Needless Comparisons

Mar 28, 2018
A Minute with Miles
SC Public Radio/Mary Noble Ours

I heard two remarkably gifted young musicians play the other day. One was a nineteen-year-old pianist and one a sixteen-year-old violinist. And it was pretty humbling, because when I was nineteen I wasn’t nearly as accomplished as either the nineteen-year-old or the sixteen-year-old. But I didn’t quit when I was nineteen, or even when I was in my early twenties and only too well aware that I was still far from a finished product… and eventually I was able to make a career as a professional musician. 


U.S. Marine Band

Mar 27, 2018
A Minute with Miles
SC Public Radio/Mary Noble Ours

Some years ago I had the privilege of appearing as viola soloist with the United States Marine Band, “the Presidents Own,” and I can tell you it was a great experience. Like the members of the other premier service bands, the bands of the Army, Navy, Air Force, and Coast Guard, the Marine Band players are graduates of some of the nation’s top conservatories, and they’re terrific musicians. And they include great string players, too, not just winds, brass, and percussion. 


A Minute with Miles
SC Public Radio/Mary Noble Ours

We’re always fascinated by abilities that are far beyond the realm of our experiences, or even of our imaginations. Some people can hold their breath for 10 minutes, some can jump four feet off the ground, some can memorize the digits of pi out to thousands of places. And some musicians—actually many musicians, although I’m not one of them—can hear any note and tell you what that note is. It’s called having “perfect pitch.” 


A Minute with Miles
SC Public Radio/Mary Noble Ours

The mathematician Mark Kac once tried to describe the extraordinary genius of the physicist Richard Feynman “There are two kinds of geniuses,” Kac wrote. “The ‘ordinary’ and the ‘magicians.’ An ordinary genius is a fellow that you and I would be just as good as, if we were only many times better. There is no mystery as to how his mind works. It is different with the magicians… the working of their minds is for all intents and purposes incomprehensible.”  


A Minute with Miles
SC Public Radio/Mary Noble Ours

A few more words today about Johann Sebastian Bach, whose birthday was yesterday. Bach wrote enormous quantities of  profoundly moving sacred music. But the hallmark of Bach’s music, whether sacred or secular, is that it’s Always passionate.  


A Minute with Miles
SC Public Radio/Mary Noble Ours

Today is the birthday of Johann Sebastian Bach. The essayist Lewis Thomas, musing on the question of what signals earthlings ought to broadcast to outer space in case alien life forms were listening, wrote, “I would vote for Bach, all of Bach, streamed out into space over and over again. We would be bragging, of course, but it is surely excusable to put on the best possible face at the beginning of such an acquaintance. Any species capable of producing the music of Johann Sebastian Bach cannot be all bad.” 


Bellini and Melody

Mar 20, 2018
A Minute with Miles
SC Public Radio/Mary Noble Ours

Vincenzo Bellini—the composer of Norma, La Sonnambula, and I Puritani, to name a few of his best-known operas—is famous for the beauty of his melodies, but also for his ability to use melody to define character, express passion, and advance dramatic action. And he had nothing but disdain for what he called the “ridiculous rules” that some people thought composers should be obliged to follow when setting poetry to music.


A Minute with Miles
SC Public Radio/Mary Noble Ours

It occurs to me, when considering the history of music, that the endlessly recurring and often bitter fights over musical styles and trends have actually been quite productive, if only because they’ve acted as spurs for composers in supposedly opposing camps to produce their best work. And then, of course, it turns out that later generations usually have no trouble enjoying all the styles in question, and the old disputes, even though productive, just seem silly to them.


A Minute with Miles
SC Public Radio/Mary Noble Ours

Mozart, they say, could compose music while he was playing billiards. Rossini wrote that he had once composed an overture while standing in the water fishing and listening to his fishing partner discuss Spanish finance. Prokofiev and other composers were known to carry notebooks with them so that they could jot down musical ideas that came to them on long walks, while Aaron Copland, when asked once how he found the inspiration for his music, said that the secret to inspiration was to sit down and work. 


Rossini on Singers

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

In The Barber of Seville and his many other operas, Gioacchino Rossini gave singers plenty of opportunities to show off their talents.  But in a letter he wrote in 1851, Rossini made it clear that he didn’t have much patience for the cult of the great singer, or for singers whose pretensions got the better of them.


Orchestra Metals

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

Today, I thought we’d take a metallurgical tour of the orchestra. The bars, for example, of glockenspiels and celestas are made of steel. So are some of the strings of stringed instruments, and almost all strings are wound with very fine wire made of steel, silver, or aluminum. The bodies of timpani are made of copper, and brass instruments are made of… well, brass, which is an alloy of copper and zinc. 


A Minute with Miles
SC Public Radio/Mary Noble Ours

Much of what we know about the great composers we’ve learned from their letters. It’s true that occasionally—and with some composers more than others—the music they’ve written seems somehow to reflect what was going on in their lives at the time. But more often than not the music gives no clue. It’s in their letters, much more than in their music, that we get a window into the composers’ private thoughts, and into the joys and struggles of their personal lives. 


Lefty Violinists

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

Have you ever seen a lefty violinist? I’ve heard of a few, but in my whole life I’ve only met one string player who holds the bow in the left hand and the instrument in the right. I don’t  really know how the tradition of playing “righty” got started, but it hasn’t changed for hundreds of years. Why can’t lefties just reverse the strings and play the way they like? Well, it’s not that simple. 


A Minute with Miles
SC Public Radio/Mary Noble Ours

The members of the violin family—the violin, viola, cello, and double bass—are made of wood. But on any one instrument you may find four or even five different kinds of wood. The top, also called the “table,” or “belly” of the instrument, will be made of spruce—a strong, light, but soft wood. The back, and the sides—which are also called the ribs—will almost always be made of maple, which is a very hard wood. 


A Minute with Miles
SC Public Radio/Mary Noble Ours

Did I ever tell you that I once won ten dollars from Leonard Bernstein? When I was a student at Juilliard I learned the Viola Concerto by William Walton, and one evening I played through it for my violinist friend Alexis Galpérine. Alexis noticed that the Walton reminded him very much of the Violin Concerto in D Major by Sergei Prokofiev, and on closer examination we saw that there was no question that Walton had indeed patterned his concerto directly after the Prokofiev.  


Folk Songs

Mar 7, 2018
A Minute with Miles
SC Public Radio/Mary Noble Ours

For at least six hundred years, composers have been borrowing the melodies of folk songs and incorporating them into their compositions. And there’s a good reason: they’re good melodies; they’re melodies that have stood the test of time—that have never lost their hold on people. 


A Minute with Miles
SC Public Radio/Mary Noble Ours

In a famous letter to his father, Mozart once wrote, “you know I become quite powerless whenever I am obliged to write for an instrument I cannot bear.” He was talking about the flute, and the occasion of the letter was a commission Mozart had received to write several flute concertos and quartets for flute and strings. In fairness to Mozart, neither the flutes nor the flutists of his day were terribly reliable, but it’s also possible that Mozart had just been procrastinating, and inventing an excuse to give his father. 


A Minute with Miles
SC Public Radio/Mary Noble Ours

Performers are always seeking the most effective and compelling ways to bring a composer’s musical ideas to life. I stress the plural, “ways,” because there’s never just one way. Some musicians sometimes forget this, unfortunately, but the best musicians, and the best teachers never do. When I was a graduate student, the string quartet I played in was working on a Bartók string quartet, and our faculty coach was Robert Mann, founder and first violinist of the Juilliard Quartet. 


A Minute with Miles
SC Public Radio/Mary Noble Ours

When musicians and music scholars prepare performances of works by dead composers, they often get stuck in arguments over determining what the composers’ “original intent” was. And while I certainly recognize the importance of scholarly accuracy and authenticity, and of staying true to the composers’ wishes, I think that sometimes musicians forget that dead composers were once alive. 


A Minute with Miles
SC Public Radio/Mary Noble Ours

Composers during the Baroque period wrote plenty of chamber music, especially trio sonatas, and sonatas for such high-voiced instruments as the violin and the flute. But the chamber music repertoire that today’s audiences are most familiar with probably begins with the piano trios and string quartets of Joseph Haydn. After Haydn, the floodgates opened. 


A Minute with Miles
SC Public Radio/Mary Noble Ours

You could write a book about the life of the German composer Georg Philipp Telemann– and as it turns out,  Telemann himself wrote three – three separate autobiographies. One of the things he wrote about is the time he spent in Poland in his early twenties. He became familiar with Polish and Moravian folk music during this period—he wrote that he experienced it in “all its barbaric beauty”—and he also heard the music of Eastern European gypsies. 


Mstislav Rostropovich

Feb 27, 2018
A Minute with Miles
SC Public Radio/Mary Noble Ours

I had the enormous good fortune as a young man to get to work with the great cellist Mstislav Rostropovich. Rostropovich, or “Slava,” as everybody called him, was the music director of the National Symphony Orchestra when I played in that ensemble, and with all his other engagements he still somehow made time to give master classes just for members of the orchestra. 


A Minute with Miles
SC Public Radio/Mary Noble Ours

In the world of instrumental and vocal teaching, most teachers approach their students with certain basic principles in mind. For me, one of those principles is that whether we’re dealing with individuals or with ensembles, there’s no separating technical goals from musical goals. I don’t believe, in other words, that it makes sense just to learn the notes first and then somehow to “plug in” the music later. 


A Minute with Miles
SC Public Radio/Mary Noble Ours

One of the things I’ve learned as a string teacher is that good habits can often replace a student’s bad habits quickly, because the good habits make playing easier.  But it was Mark Twain, strangely enough, who helped me to realize that the switch can only result from a very conscious and rational process on the student’s part, a process of understanding and acceptance. 


Pages