I heard a concert by violist Miles Hoffman on 11/14/20, presented by Open Space Music (based in Jersey City, NJ) and Lincoln Friends of Chamber Music (based in Lincoln, NE). The concert was titled “Bach Was Handsome Once.”
Hoffman started with a biographical overview of Bach. He was known as an organ virtuoso - - I knew that the term “pull all the stops out” had to do with playing the organ, but I didn’t know it was Bach who coined the phrase! He would play in many different churches and would always test out and organ by “listening to the lungs” and pulling out all the stops, to hear what kind of sound it could make.
Hoffman’s central idea was that Bach is seen as a god, but he was really just a regular guy. A genius, one of the most extraordinary geniuses of all time, but he was once young and simply playing the organ and writing music to make a living. He was in his 20s and 30s when he wrote much of his best-known music. And yes, he really WAS handsome. Hoffman shared this portrait of Bach, which I'd never seen before:
What a dish!
He played Bach’s third cello suite. He played it in an arrangement for viola, and I’m such a dumbass I had never realized that the viola is built the same way as the cello, with the same strings, but an octave higher and on a smaller instrument. So a cello piece makes a very easy transition to viola.
I’ve heard a lot of Bach solo pieces in these concerts over the course of the pandemic and the bar has been set high - - I was a little concerned in the first movement, I felt like Hoffman’s playing was strong and dedicated, but maybe lacking in elegance. I wanted more smoothness, more juice. The rest of the piece was much more satisfying, I think maybe he just needed a minute to make the transition from talking for 30+ minutes to playing…
The second movement, the Allemande, had a jaunty quality that I liked a lot, it really felt like a dance (which is what it is). The third movement, the Courante, was full of intelligence and character, I felt like Hoffman was expressing something.
The fourth movement was a Sarabande, which I usually expect to be melancholy, but in this case, it was contemplative and tender. He had a little bit of intonation wonkiness in this movement, but it didn’t bother me too much.
The fifth movement, the Bourée, was another dance movement and full of snap and Baroque attitude. The final movement, the Gigue, had lots of drama and excitement.