Happy Birthday, Bernard Hoffer

Composer Bernard Hoffer (b. )
Composer Bernard Hoffer (b. 1934)

The Swiss-born American composer Bernard Hoffer turns 81 today.

You may not recognize Hoffer’s name, but chances are good that you’ve heard his music, especially if you’re a longtime viewer of the PBS NewsHour. The NewsHour‘s theme music (originally written in 1975 and, at one point, nominated for an Emmy) has undergone several iterations over the years, but Hoffer’s catchy six-note musical branding logo has remained.

For years, the broadcast opened with that familiar solo trumpet, layered strings rising with exuberance, an emphatic, “no nonsense” resolution, and then a strange, unresolved chord which faded into the headlines, as if to say, “News is never resolved. It’s always about what happens next…” (Listen here). Those rising strings have always reminded me of a vaguely similar passage from the opening of Jupiter, The Bringer of Jolity from Gustav Holst’s 1916 suite, The Planets. (Listen and see if you agree).

Hoffer’s memorable closing music for The NewsHour has the buoyancy, elegance and sense of motion of Ravel’s Le Tombeau de Couperin. Listen carefully to everything that’s happening in this music, from the pizzicato bass line, to the fun rhythmic counter-currents, to the effortless sequence from one key area to another. Not bad for music which is intended to be purely utilitarian and commercial.

Hoffer’s MacNeil/Lehrer Variations liberate this made-for-TV music. The familiar motives are allowed to abandon their assigned roles and freely play and develop. Fittingly, the piece ends with that fading, unresolved chord, only this time Hoffer has a surprise up his sleeve…

This album, released in 2012 and featuring the RTÉ National Symphony Orchestra includes three additional works: the Elegy for a Friend, and Elegy for Violin and String Orchestra, music Hoffer wrote following the passing of friends and loved ones, and Symphony “Pousette-Dart,” inspired by the work of New York abstract expressionist painter, Richard Pousette-Dart.

A graduate of the Eastman School of Music, Bernard Hoffer’s other memorable scores include cartoon music for Thundercats and Silverhawks.

Violins and the Power of Suggestion

violin

The results of a long anticipated study published on April 7 seem to shatter long-held assumptions about the superiority of 300-year-old Stradivari and Guarneri violins to fine modern instruments. The study, led by French scientist Claudia Fritz with the help of American luthier Joseph Curtin, follows up on a controversial blind test conducted in an Indianapolis hotel room in 2010. Ten prominent violinists, including Ilya Kaler and Elmar Oliveira, were unable to distinguish old instruments from new in a blind test. In fact, modern instruments were slightly favored. This tantalizing documentary shows how the Paris Double-Blind Violin Experiment unfolded. 

Currently, many soloists own copies of their famous Strads and Guarneris and frequently perform on these well-crafted modern instruments in concerts. In the end, it’s the relationship between the instrument and the violinist which may be most important. Over time we learn how each violin wants to be played and we discover new colors and tonal possibilities. It’s a relationship of give and take. If we put the right energy into the violin, it rewards us. Nothing can diminish the technological and artistic achievements of the old Italian makers. But this study may be the first step in overcoming an irrational bias against fine modern instruments.

The violin is a ruthlessly honest seismograph of the heart. Four strings stretched over the bridge put sixty-five pounds of pressure on the wooden sounding chamber; this stored energy amplifies every nuance of weight, balance, friction, and muscle tone as the musician draws the bow over the string. Each tremor and movement reflects the musician’s minutest unconscious impulse. There is nothing hidden with the violin-it is like mathematics in that respect; pretense is impossible. The sound coming out of that instrument is a sensitive lie detector, a sensitive truth detector.

-Stephen Nachmanovitch, Free Play: The Power of Improvisation in Life and the Arts

Five Great CDs for Your Holiday Gift Bag

Whether you’re looking for the perfect gift or you want to expand your CD collection for the new year, here are five recordings which I highly recommend:

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Offering Alexandra Adkins, violin

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Alexandra Adkins is a member of the Houston Symphony violin section.  Last December she released this CD which includes sonatas by Handel, Leclair, Corelli and two movements from Bach’s Partita in d minor.  For the Handel and Corelli she is accompanied by guitar, providing a unique twist.  Also included are three contemporary tracks featuring hymn tunes and a song written by Adkins. Listen to this interview to learn more about Offering.  This is a fun and diverse CD that celebrates the idea that great music transcends categories.

 

 

 

 

Brahms: The Violin Sonatas Oleh Krysa, violin and Tatiana Tchekina, piano

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This is my former teacher’s rare and inspiring recording of the three Brahms Violin Sonatas.  While there are many recordings of this music, it’s hard to imagine a more perfect interpretation.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Mahler Symphony No. 1 Eugene Ormandy, conductor with the Philadelphia Orchestra

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If you’re not familiar with the dramatic and deeply psychological music of the late Romantic composer Gustav Mahler, this recording will be a great introduction.  If you’re already a Mahler fan you will enjoy hearing the original second movement Blumine (flower piece) which Mahler later cut from the Symphony.

This recording was first released in 1969.  You will notice the legendary, lush and perfectly blended string sound that the Philadelphia Orchestra was known for at that time.  One of the most striking examples of this occurs in the dreamy middle section of the Fourth Movement where the strings emerge with a velvety, veiled sound.

Mahler’s Songs of a Wayfarer are included on the disk.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

La Boheme The Metropolitan Opera with Teresa Stratas, Renata Scotto, Jose Carreras, Richard Stilwell, Allan Monk, James Morris, James Levine, conductor, Franco Zeffirelli, producer

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If you’re new to opera this DVD is a great place to start.  Puccini’s La Boheme has a great story and features one beautiful melody after another.  English subtitles are provided.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Howard Hanson: Symphony No. 2 “Romantic”, Samuel Barber: Violin Concerto Elmar Oliveira, violin Leonard Slatkin, conductor with the Saint Louis Symphony

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This 1990 Grammy nominated CD features music by two twentieth century American composers.  There have been many recordings of Samuel Barber’s Violin Concerto since this came out, but Elmar Oliveira’s interpretation still endures.  Some violinists overly schmalz this already Romantic music.  Oliveira goes for something deeper and more profound and captures the true essence of the piece.

Hanson’s Symphony No. 2 might remind you of a lush movie score and the wide open plains.  There is another good recording of this piece by Gerard Schwartz and the Seattle Symphony.  I prefer the slightly slower and more thoughtful tempos that Slatkin takes in this recording, especially in the Second Movement.