Instrumentalist - Cello
Gary Hoffman holds and maintains a cello legacy

Gary Hoffman's cello is a legendary instrument. It was built in Cremona, Italy, in 1662 by Nicola Amati, who taught Antonio Stradivari how to make violins. And it was played for 32 years, from the 1950s into the '80s, by Leonard Rose, one of the 20th century's greatest cellists, chamber performers and teachers.

Hoffman -- who, as pretty much any cellist will tell you, is among the most outstanding cellists of this day -- will perform on his Amati three times this week with Symphony Silicon Valley at the California Theatre.

At 50, he has a complicated relationship with the instrument: When he acquired it in 1985, only months after Rose's death, he says, "I could feel him in the instrument,'' which seemed to be guiding its new owner in a way that seemed "strange'' for a while.

"I could sense what its potential was and try to get to the bottom of its sound,'' Hoffman says, on the phone from his home in Paris.

He has toted the Amati around the world, playing with orchestras in Chicago, London, San Francisco and Paris, with conductors including James Levine, Charles Dutoit, Herbert Blomstedt and Mstislav Rostropovich, and, Hoffman says, "I feel like the cello and I are one; I don't know if that's a romantic notion. It's been 21 1/2 years now, and it just feels like it's a part of me. And maybe I'm a part of it, too.''

Conversational style
Hoffman has an easy way of speaking. He is thoughtful and down to earth (a big-time fan of baseball and bullfighting) and tells good stories. In a way, his conversation is like his playing.
He isn't a household name, but his richly expressive performances, technical prowess and knowledge of repertory are themselves legendary: "I think Yo-Yo Ma's wonderful, but I think Gary's playing is more moving,'' says Jennifer Kloetzel, cellist with the Cypress String Quartet and a protege. "He is one of the finest cellists living today and on a par with the finest cellists who've ever lived.''

Famous as a teacher, too, Hoffman delivers -- over the phone -- an impromptu lecture on Shostakovich's Cello Concerto No. 1, which he will perform Thursday, Saturday and Sunday in San Jose.

He sees a relationship between Shostakovich and Beethoven, in that each had a genius for taking a little cell-like motive -- the memorable four-note motto for cello that opens the Concerto, or the da-da-da-DAAAA that begins Beethoven's Fifth -- and, coming out of that, "generating this giant monumental structure. I find that fascinating and amazing.''

There's also Shostakovich's famous cello cadenza at the end of the slow second movement, which spins out, monumentally, into a movement unto itself. It is the "pivotal, emotional point of the piece,'' Hoffman explains, "after which you segue into the fourth movement, which brings the message home and returns to the opening music."

"And one senses that one had to go through a long journey, through many different valleys, to get back to this opening. Only now it's much more triumphant than at the beginning, when it was suggestive and furtive. Now there's an enormous sweep and build-up and drama.''

He has played the piece dozens of times, he says, but he never tires of it.

Born in Vancouver, British Columbia, in 1956, Hoffman comes from a remarkable musical family. His father Irwin is a conductor (now living in Costa Rica), his mother Esther a violinist (in New York). His brother Joel is a pianist and composer (at the University of Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music); his other brother Toby a conductor (in Helsinki); his sister Deborah a harpist (the principal for the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra).

Hoffman began studying violin with his mother at 7 and switched to the cello at 9. Practice routines for the children were "serious'' but "not maniacal.'' First practice, then play with friends: "It wasn't like we were locked in our rooms: `If you don't do your five hours, you don't eat tonight.' ''

Well-traveled youth
The family moved to Chicago, then St. Petersburg, Fla. When Hoffman was a teenager there, the family would go on tour as the Hoffman Chamber Players, and he began getting huge chunks of chamber repertory "under my fingers and into my ear.''

At 15, he debuted at London's Wigmore Hall. Still in his teens, he enrolled at the Indiana University School of Music, studying with cellist Janos Starker. Like Rose (with whom Hoffman never studied), Starker was a pivotal pedagogue and performer.

Hoffman became his assistant and, at 22, was hired to the university faculty. In 1986, he became the first American to win the prestigious Rostropovich International Cello Competition in Paris, and his career moved into full swing.

He moved to New York, married a French woman and had a son, Sascha, who was born in New York, "but,'' he says, "my wife wanted to come back to Paris. Things didn't work out'' -- the couple divorced -- "but I ended up staying here so I could be here for him. The fact that it happened to be Paris was a bonus.''

In the years since, Hoffman has become a sought-after recitalist, chamber player at summer festivals and orchestral soloist. Once, performing in Mexico City, he was invited by a friend to attend a bullfight and became hooked on "the indescribable combination of elegance and the most raw emotion and spectacle possible.''

One senses that experiences like this increasingly have enriched his life and music; whenever he performs, he likes to do something that "touches the soul of the place.'' And nothing, one gets the feeling, has been more enriching for him than fatherhood.

When Sascha became a New York Yankees fan, Hoffman's allegiance shifted from the Chicago Cubs (he'd been loyal to those heartbreakers since he was small) to the Yanks.

"Their best season's still '96,'' he says, referring to New York's nail-biting victory over the Atlanta Braves in that season's World Series, "and one of the best things I ever did as a dad -- I managed to scrounge up tickets for Game 6, the final game, and we flew over and went to the game.

"Paul O'Neill hit a double and (Joe) Girardi hit a triple off Greg Maddux,'' he recounts, referring to the Yankees' right fielder and catcher and Braves' pitcher, respectively.

This summer, Hoffman and Sascha, now 19 and attending Boston University, went to Yankee Stadium "for five games in a row. The Yanks won every one of them.''

In the past 10 days, the peripatetic father and musician has performed in Johannesburg, South Africa, and Granada, Spain.

"When I'm able to live this music by performing it and feeling it going through my mind and my body,'' he says, "that's an indescribable feeling and state of mind to be in."

"t was never my goal to achieve fame for fame itself. There's tremendous fulfillment and pleasure by knowing and feeling that at least from time to time I give others pleasure. It's not a one-way street, and it's not at all a selfish act, playing music. At its best it's a selfless act. And when those moments occur, it's an indescribable feeling.''
San Jose Mercury News
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