Beethoven’s boom box

“Snobbishness helps no one,” announces National Public Radio commentator/concert violist Miles Hoffman during a recent phone chat with Xpress.

He goes on to reveal that the two words he’s most stringently avoided in his 16 years on air are: “of course.”

As in: “The Marriage of Figaro was one of Mozart’s most famous operas, of course.”

“Which means, if you don’t know that, you’re an idiot,” Hoffman translates.

And if there’s a commonly held perception that classical music is intended for a privileged class, then the commentator is a man with a mission, out to prove that the genre is for everyone.

Radio days

Forget season passes and bow ties. Well, don’t actually forget these things (your local symphony would love for you to become a member) — but don’t think you have to shell out top dollar for tickets just to hear good classical music.

“All you have to have is a radio,” Hoffman sniffs. And he should know — that’s how he got bitten. As a child, the violist listened to concertos over the family hi-fi before going on to study at such prestigious schools as Juilliard and Yale.

Hoffman debuted not at glitzy Carnegie Hall, but at New York’s 92nd Street Y (admittedly more of a community arts center than a basketball court-and-Village People type of establishment) before embarking on an international career. In 1982, he founded the Library of Congress Summer Chamber Festival, directing it for most of a decade. He currently directs and performs viola with the American Chamber Players, and will appear as a soloist with the Brevard Music Center faculty on August 1.

The commentator came full circle, returning to radio — this time in front of the mic — with the 1989 inception of Coming to Terms, a weekly tour of the technical side of classical music. The program, which Hoffman attributes to Performance Today host Martin Goldsmith, ran for 13 years. It was Goldsmith who originally conceived of a music-terminology show called Jargon Busters.

“He asked if I wanted to do it, and I said, ‘Okay, as long as we can change the name,'” Hoffman quips. Currently, he serves as the music commentator for NPR’s Morning Edition and All Things Considered. But even when he’s differentiating between an adagio and an aria, Hoffman manages to keep it real.

“My commentaries have always been aimed at people who enjoy classical music … [but] I’ve always assumed I’m speaking to intelligent people who may not have a background in [it],” he explains.

“I don’t necessarily know more about these things than other people. I think if there’s a strength to what I do, it’s that I speak in plain issues.”

Using the same straight talk, the violist neatly brushes off the current trend toward big labels trying to push classical sales with pop-savvy or sexy album covers. There’s Bond Girl Tania Davis, who now performs with an all-female classical quartet — in exotic costumes, no less — and British piano, violin and harp star Myleene Klass, who just cut a six-figure deal to bridge the gap between pop and classics (her centerfold-worthy magazine poses didn’t hurt). “Some of it’s silly, some of it’s downright ridiculous,” Hoffman sighs. “That will fade quickly, because it’s based on celebrity and trend.

“Audiences respond to good music,” he goes on. “There’s been too much that’s been passed off as serious and important … and audiences have been berated for not liking unlikable music.

“The first audience reaction when they hear a good piece of music,” he says, “is relief.”

Searching for the next Bach

But Hoffman doesn’t totally steer clear of contemporary composers — quite the opposite. The violist gave the first American performance of “Cadenza,” by Krzysztof Penderecki. He’s also commissioned works by composers Bruce Saylor, Max Raimi, Roger Ames and others.

“They’re all in different styles,” he says. “Different musical languages. Musical language can change.” Which is why classical remains current — new composers are continually crafting fresh works to regale fans.

And, from the perspective of a musician who spends much time touring, many symphonies and classical-music series are doing a booming business. “You have to be careful about how you define ‘younger audience,'” says Hoffman. “What you’re shooting for is replenishing classical audiences with people in their 30s, 40s and 50s.” Not 20-somethings with the attention spans of gnats, in other words.

“The average age of classical audiences has changed very little,” he confirms. The other thing that hasn’t changed is the reason people listen to classical (or any genre, for that matter).

“It’s the human-connection factor. Composers who don’t satisfy our needs as listeners will fade very quickly.”

But of course.

Brevard Music Festival presents viola star Miles Hoffman performing works by Bruch and Schumann at Brevard College’s Porter Center on Monday, Aug. 1. 7:30 p.m. $15. (828) 862-2105.

About Alli Marshall
Alli Marshall is the arts section editor at Mountain Xpress. She's lived in Asheville for more than 20 years and loves live music, visual art, fiction and friendly dogs. Alli is the winner of the 2016 Thomas Wolfe Fiction Prize and the author of the novel "How to Talk to Rockstars," published by Logosophia Books. Follow me @alli_marshall

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