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The unbearable lightness of being Gary Hoffman

Gary Hoffman is one of the music world’s best-kept secrets, a fine and uncompromising cellist whose rare appearances mesmerise. For him, being a musician involves a daily struggle, but he wouldn't have it any other way, as he explains

Gary Hoffman. Photo: Gerard Proust

I wouldn’t call Gary Hoffman a great cellist. Not after our conversation at the recent Amsterdam Cello Biënnale. He told me in no uncertain terms what he thinks of the expression: ‘These words are thrown around. Everybody’s “great”. Are they all great? Casals was great. Heifetz was great. Bach, John Coltrane – I reserve that word for those people. This is the age where you’re supposed to say “like”, “don’t like”. It’s been reduced to such superficial terms.’

Without throwing adjectives around, I think it’s fair to suggest that Hoffman deserves a place in the pantheon of cellists. I only heard him for the first time two years ago at the Piatigorsky Cello Festival in Los Angeles and was captivated by the depth, sincerity and nobility of his playing. Since then I have seen him in an all-too-rare Wigmore Hall recital in January and both teaching and playing at the Prades Festival last year. Hoffman is the cellist’s cellist – revered by those who know him, a frequent guest at elite festivals such as Verbier and Prades, and in demand at top educational institutions such as the Kronberg Academy and Queen Elisabeth Music Chapel in Belgium, where he has a class of seven.

But one of the great mysteries of the classical music business is that a cellist of Hoffman’s class isn’t a regular with the finest orchestras in the most famous concert halls, doesn’t have his own chamber music series, and has recorded relatively little of the cello repertoire for posterity. Is this an indictment of the state of classical music, or does it reflect the delicacy of a true and unguarded artistic spirit? I suspect a bit of both.

Hoffman thinks a lot, and deeply. You can tell this when he talks about music. I interviewed him a few times for the Masterclass feature in The Strad and we would have epic conversations, with him considering the piece at hand on multiple levels, whether harmonic, historical, technical, personal, philosophical or metaphorical, and in various magnifications and dimensions. It seems that his favourite expression when talking about music is ‘on the other hand…’ Talking to him in more general conversation, one has the sense of an existentialist, constantly evaluating his choices, aware of the burdens and responsibilities of life, whether in simply being, or in existing as a musician in the world.

‘Every day I’m as close to quitting as I am to continuing’

At the most stark, his basic daily choice is whether to go on being a cellist: ‘Every day I call everything into question. Every day I’m as close to quitting as I am to continuing. I choose to keep going. Many times I have wanted to stop, just because I’m too discouraged either by my own personal situation or by what I see around me. But I feel I have to endure. I know that seems very dramatic, but this is what we do and it’s extremely important.’

Even now, 40 years after he made his Wigmore Hall debut at the precocious age of 15, he feels a certain terror about going on stage. His discomfort when he comes on stage is often visible – he’ll shuffle his stand or fiddle with his pegs and shift in his seat. So it’s no surprise when he reveals, ‘I’m nervous every concert. I know that I’m going to feel humiliated. But somewhere underneath there’s some sense of confidence otherwise I couldn’t go on stage. Why else would I want to put myself through that suffering? And it’s not getting easier – it’s getting harder.’

‘If you have that kind of self-questioning you can’t have blind confidence’

He wouldn’t have it any other way, though, and doesn’t trust artists who don’t go through this: ‘Francescatti said that even at the age of 80, when he had retired from the stage, at 8 o’clock every night he felt sick to his stomach. And if it’s not like that for people then they’re either lying or naïve, or they can’t be very good musicians. For me, true musicians have to be like that because they could never get to the depths of what this music is about if they don’t have that kind of self-questioning. And if you have that kind of self-questioning you can’t have blind confidence about what you do – it just doesn’t go together.’

Coming off stage provides little relief as Hoffman is rarely satisfied with his performances: ‘I put high demands on myself and I never reach them, so I’m never happy after concerts. Sometimes I might look happy, but I’m more relieved that I didn’t make a fool of myself. Once in a while I actually feel that that is how I can play. János Starker was asked how many times he felt like that in his life and he said 8 – in 70 years. I’ll feel it maybe once or twice a year and I consider that a blessing. When you think about it that’s an incredibly tough life. The pressure and stress are monstrous. Does it have to be that way? I’m sure not, but that’s me. I know people whom you ask about a concert and they say, “Oh, it was good.” I can’t say that a concert was good. I just can’t say it. It’s the way I was educated, not just by my family but by the people around me: the Starkers, the Gingolds. It was a different era. The idea of self-satisfaction was not encouraged.’

‘No one in the audience knows what you expect of yourself’

The audience response can’t soothe this dissatisfaction: ‘You can feel you played well but you didn’t get a reaction from the audience; or you can get that reaction from the audience but you feel you didn’t play well. Either way you think they’re not truthful. Your feeling about yourself is about your own expectations. No one in the audience – not even your closest friend – knows what you expect of yourself.’

Despite this, having an audience is addictive, he confesses. ‘The performing aspect of music is a little like having a drug addiction. Even if there’s pressure, the audience gives me a chance to experience music in a way that cannot be at home. You can’t duplicate having that audience, having that moment. It’s like the drug you’ve taken that allows you to forget all the pain. I admit there’s a part of me that needs it. I think as performers that’s something we have to deal with.’

Hoffman performs at the Amsterdam Biënnale. Photo: Ben Bonouvrier

Hoffman was testing his relationship with the audience even as a young man. ‘I was asking myself many questions, seeing things on television and stage, and it was unfathomable to me that they were successful.’ So he tried an experiment. His family used to have a music festival in Florida, where they’d play the same programme in the same hall to the same audiences daily. He remembers: ‘It was a laboratory for me to look at pieces and gain more experience on stage. Once, I was playing with my brother Joel and we’d played the work three or four times so I knew how the audience was going to react. I said to him, “I don’t know what I’m going to do, but my sole purpose for the next six minutes is to get a reaction out of the audience, whatever it takes. I need to find out.” I started making faces and throwing my body around and exaggerating everything. I played as fast as I could, as loud as I could, whacking the instrument, trying to elicit a response.’ The audience reaction? ‘It was an explosion. Like nothing before.’ His reaction? ‘I felt horrible. I hated it, so I never did it again.’

‘If you’re afraid to do something, why don’t you try it?’

His choice was not to compromise: ‘Even when I understood that I could have a bigger reaction doing it another way, I realised I couldn’t do it. It would be taking on a persona that was not mine. I would forever be selling my soul to the devil. It’s about being true to yourself, finding your truth and following it.’ He sees this quest as part of becoming a musician: ‘It was an important process to take. I wish that on young people. If you’re afraid to do something, why don’t you try it? You need to discover yourself, figure out who you are.’

Curious to test the conclusions of Hoffman’s experiment, I observed the final concert of the Biënnale with interest. With its roll call of top cellists making their way through various repertoire, it provided the perfect sample. Each player had their own performance style, ranging from calm stillness, through different levels of head swaying to wild abandon, with a music stand at one point accidentally kicked into the audience, even. And yes, it did seem to me that the level of audience reaction – measured as sheer volume of noise – did correlate to the amount of physical energy they were exhibiting.

What does this say about audiences? Maybe on one level there is a certain kinetic energy that a performer emits, which transmits to an audience and erupts in their response. On another, maybe some people do need to be shown what to feel about classical music. Hoffman tells me, somewhat painfully, about someone recently describing his performance as ‘nothing’. (I stare blankly, trying to comprehend.) He explains, ‘I think he was the kind of person who wants someone to tell them what to think. If that’s what someone wants from my playing they’re going to be disappointed. That’s not my objective in playing or in life. Probably the nicest thing anyone has said to me is, “When you play you let me react the way I want to.” That’s what it’s all about.’

‘The future of music will always be sincerity and honesty’

János Starker, with whom Hoffman studied and whose teaching assistant he became, warned him of the dichotomy: ‘He saw the trend many years ago. He said there’s room for music and for entertainment, but you have to know the difference between them. The lines have been blurred to such an extent and that is of concern to me. On the other hand there are still people around who respect what music really is. For me the future of music will always be sincerity and honesty.’

As much as I want to believe this, I’m not so sure. As George Burns said, ‘If you can fake sincerity, you’ve got it made.’ And while sincerity and honesty might be necessary conditions for being a great musician, are they sufficient to make it in the business? Or are a good photograph, well-designed website, persistent press person, persuasive story, vaulting ambition and thick skin more useful?

Another concerning aspect is the lack of opportunities, particularly for cellists, and how the ones that exist most often go to younger players. The Baltimore Symphony Orchestra just published some research as to the programmes of the top 21 US orchestras, which backs up this theory. Tallying up the cello solos, I counted 27 concerto opportunities across all these orchestras in the 2014–15 season, with only two soloists over the age of 40 reasonably busy: Yo-Yo Ma with five performances and Lynn Harrell with two. Apart from that, the most in-demand soloists are Alisa Weilerstein and Renaud Capuçon, each with five performances in the season, and the others are all younger, or members of the orchestras.

A quick trawl of the top venues indicates a similar picture in Europe, where it’s rare to find a cello concerto being performed at all, let alone by the grey of hair, and also with recitals, although there is slightly more diversity there. But to hear the likes of Miklós Perényi, Natalia Gutman, Mischa Maisky, Frans Helmerson or Hoffman, the best place to go is to a cello festival.

‘Music and any great art form have to take time’

This may just be how life goes. Touring becomes more tedious with age, as does keeping in technical shape, and at a certain point players often turn themselves to the satisfaction of teaching. But is there also an increasing focus on youth in the business? Hoffman thinks so. ‘Everything is speeding up and there’s a general sense that if something takes a lot of time it’s not worth having. And yet music and any great art form have to take time. As great as Heifetz and Casals were, they changed, and what they brought to Brahms and Beethoven changed. Brahms didn’t write at the age of 10 what he wrote at 35 and neither did Mozart. That’s normal and yet we seem to throw away someone who’s 35 or 40 already. Music has to do with human development and what one brings to the table, and you can’t speed up that process.’

He also sees a tendency towards players sounding the same: ‘While there is a sense that performers play better than they ever did, people complain that players tend to sound the same. If you take just the violin, at one given time you had Stern, Heifetz, Milstein, Grumiaux, Francescatti, Szigeti, Szeryng. You can tell them all apart. What seems to be happening today is a movement towards uniformity, towards finding a way that’s successful and is therefore the best way. It has to do with the fact there are so many people aiming for the very few spots there are.’

If his articulacy makes Hoffman sound rather cerebral, his playing is anything but – it comes from a much deeper well. No one inhabits the solemn, spiritual yearning of Jewish liturgical music by Bloch and Bruch as Hoffman does. Nor is his playing without humour – his last recording, of Mendelssohn, has plenty of charm and mischief, even if more avuncular than child-like. And his recording of Chopin and Rachmaninoff sonatas is full of passion and emotion, without ever tipping into self-indulgence. For all the study and analysis, he talks of something almost transcendental happening when he performs: ‘I need to allow for the process to take place in a way other than intellectual. Often that happens right before I play. It’s only at that point that some other aspect kicks in, an understanding that I’ve found the part inside me that’s become harmonious with the music.’

‘My generation doesn’t really know where we stand with Bach’

Surprisingly, he finds this process most difficult with the Bach Cello Suites, but he puts this into historical context: ‘When it comes to Bach I wish I were growing up today. My generation doesn’t really know where we stand with Bach. Casals took a long time before he would play the Suites in public but he was lucky because it was like he was playing new music. There was nothing to compare him with, no tradition. That was very liberating. That’s why there’s such incredible conviction in everything he does. After Casals you hear Feuermann and Piatigorsky and you can tell they are not comfortable. Then came Starker who decided the Bach Suites were important and recorded them several times. Tortelier’s Bach is great but a week before he recorded the Suites he decided to practise everything without vibrato. That’s an extreme idea, which shows it was something that weighed on him. Rostropovich played Bach, but it wasn’t what he was known for, and Rose played it but never recorded it. Now everyone plays Bach. The whole younger generation has been “decomplexed” because my generation has paid the price.’

What makes it so hard? ‘All the Baroque information has left us feeling that as responsibly informed and intelligent people we can’t ignore it and yet it doesn’t really correlate with what we do. I know that for me to be convincing in Bach I have to get to a place that is similar to other music I play, and to reach that level of instinctiveness under pressure. I’m not sure that’s possible. What you do at home is one thing, but we’re performers so it’s what happens on stage that counts. There are times I’m playing Bach at home, thinking, “If only I could play it like this on stage.”’

In his teaching, Hoffman stresses the importance of broad knowledge and historical context: ‘There is a surprising lack of curiosity as to who were the figures of yesteryear. When you mention Piatigorsky and Feuermann you realise that many young people don’t know who they are. What are the traditions? What were these people like? Where did they come from? Did cello playing start with Rostropovich? I don’t think so, but most kids today probably think that. I’m not in favour of keeping traditions alive for the sake of it, but I don’t understand how someone who is playing music from the past can cut themselves off from all that has been done, said, recorded and written about. It all gives other points of reference, more information, and will ultimately add to the creative process. That’s what it’s about – expanding your mind and seeing what’s possible, because there’s no absolute truth. As young people we tend to look for the truth and it’s very destabilising to know there isn’t just one. The most important thing is to find one’s own truth.’

‘You have to be willing to make a choice in life and to pay the price’

Sometimes this truth might go against the prevailing fashion or wisdom, but Hoffman counsels his students to use the power of their choice: ‘People often say they have a favourite recording of the Schubert B flat Piano Trio – the one with Thibaud, Casals and Cortot. I ask what they like about it and they say, “It’s so free and charming, the music flows, there’s such a sense of spontaneity.” I ask, “Does it bother you that it’s not together?” “No.” “So why don’t you play like that?” “It’s different today.” “But why is it different today?” “Nobody accepts that way.” “But you liked it and you’re not the only ones.” “But that’s not how it is today. It has to be perfectly together.” So I tell them, “You have to be willing to make a choice in life and to pay the price. And paying the price for having that kind of freedom and flow is perhaps not being together. It doesn’t bother you because the musical intention and message so overrides it that you don’t notice it and even if you do, it doesn’t bother you. So take the cue from that and try to go that way.” When I hear students considering this, I think there’s hope. And maybe one day when they get older and they realise they didn’t get anything they wanted by following the so-called “successful” way they’ll think maybe there was something to it and they might start to get more rewards.’

Hoffman doesn’t seem to have any regrets about not following the ‘so-called “successful” way’. He says, ‘I’m not trying to be different. I never did try to be different. I just followed my own path. We have to keep our sights set on what’s important, what’s pure, what’s direct. You do have an option. If music is important to your soul and your being how could you possibly compromise? If it’s just a métier, a way to make a living, choose something easier and more lucrative, because I’m here to tell you it’s not going to be. You’re going to suffer far too much for it.'

Maybe it’s this unwillingness to compromise that makes Hoffman such a compelling player. And, if it means, paradoxically, that we don’t get to hear him as often as we’d like, maybe that’s a good thing. It just makes those opportunities seem even more great. Yes, great.

Photo credits

Portrait: Gerard Proust

Amsterdam Biënnale: Ben Bonouvrier

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