Gary Hoffman left the Lower Mainland, reluctantly, at the age of eight, but he still has warm feelings for his birthplace. “Vancouver has something—soul, I guess is the best word—that remains, and that’s something I’m happy to come back to,” the cello virtuoso tells the Georgia Straight, in a telephone interview from New York City. “There’s a special energy in Vancouver. I always felt it when I was a kid, and I always feel it when I come back. I always had the feeling that there’s a basic sense of optimism, and a sense of how things can be—an idealism, let’s say. A sense that something can happen.”
Of course, part of any interpretive artist’s skill set is the ability to find the best in what’s in front of them, and in the case of the concerts he’ll play with the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra this week, he’s enjoyed plenty of time to think about his material. Edward Elgar’s Cello Concerto is one of the benchmarks of cello repertoire, and Hoffman has had almost five decades to acquaint himself with its outer forms and inner meanings.
“I certainly was familiar with the piece before I started working on it, and I guess I started working on it in my teens,” he says. “I couldn’t tell you exactly how old I was, but I’m guessing 15 or 16 or something like that, and then performed it not too long after that. I’m not the only cellist who would say this, but it feels like one of those pieces I’ve known all my life, although that’s technically not true. But certainly all my adult life, for sure.”
Most recently, Hoffman has recorded the Cello Concerto for the La Dolce Volta label, pairing it with a lesser-known early-20th-century masterpiece, Ernest Bloch’s Schelomo. For the cellist, both works speak eloquently of their era—and yet their significance hasn’t dimmed, a century or more after they were written.
“Composers are people, too,” he notes. “We’re all affected in some way or another by things that are happening in the world around us, of course, and something as significant and as crucial as the First World War no doubt had an effect on those people.
“I’ve always felt that the Elgar concerto was very much a product of his time—the end of the Victorian era, the end of the war, and the death of his wife,” he continues. “And yet for me it’s always been relevant. I don’t think that it’s stopped being relevant. No doubt, today, in the world, one senses that the times are a bit troubled. There’s a bit of a sense of ‘What’s next?’ and there’s something about this piece that has that as well. But there’s also some curiosity, a sense of optimism, in the sense that no matter what, our spirit lives on, and there’s always something to look forward to.”
There’s no telling whether that future will be bleak or bright, Hoffman adds, but there’s no better balm or bolster than music. “Things happen as they happen,” he says, “and we have to find a way to cope.”
Gary Hoffman joins the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra at the Orpheum on Friday and Saturday (November 29 and 30).