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Demanding, respected Irwin Hoffman, first conductor of Florida Orchestra, dies at 93

More than a thousand people turned out at historical Whitcomb Bayou in Tarpon Springs Sunday to watch Irwin Hoffman direct the Florida Orchestra in 1984. Times files.
Published Mar. 23, 2018

Orchestra musicians respected and feared Irwin Hoffman, the founding conductor of what is now the Florida Orchestra.

They describe him as old- school, unsparing in criticism, even dictatorial. The same musicians credit Mr. Hoffman with establishing the high standards that kept the orchestra afloat during its first 20 years.

Mr. Hoffman, who turned two merged civic orchestras into a regional player, with aspirations to become a major symphony orchestra, died Monday in Costa Rica. He was 93.

He enjoyed shaping orchestras more than simply leading the ones that didn't need it, although he did that too, serving as a titled conductor with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra from 1964 to 1970. He memorized his symphonies, conducting without a score or a baton, keeping musicians on track with hand gestures and facial expressions. He was a border collie of notes, nipping at the shape of a piece while interpreting its sound.

"At the age of 19, when I first joined the orchestra as second clarinet, I quickly learned the terror of excellence that he insisted upon," said Brian Moorhead, 65, the orchestra's former principal clarinet. "The terror came from how I felt. The excellence was very well led and inspired by him."

Mr. Hoffman was known for singling out musicians he thought were playing incorrectly in rehearsals.

"To some, he may have been very, very cruel," Moorhead said, "because if he saw a droplet of blood of vulnerability, there were some who said he may go for the draw and quarter and decimate someone, whether they were a principal or a section player."

John Bannon, the orchestra's principal timpanist, considers Mr. Hoffman one of his life's biggest influences.

"Boy, was he tough, and scary," Bannon said. "But if you knew what you were doing and could come through in the clutch, while the pressure was never off you were okay. Not that he ever acknowledged it."

Mr. Hoffman first impressed locals as a guest conductor of the Tampa Philharmonic, one of two civic orchestras. That performance, coupled with his resume as a Juilliard School graduate and protege of famed conductor Serge Koussevitzky, led the boards of the Tampa Philharmonic and the St. Petersburg Symphony to approach Mr. Hoffman in 1967. At the time, he was serving as acting music director of the Chicago Symphony. After meeting with him, the board named Mr. Hoffman, then 43, the first music director of the Florida Gulf Coast Symphony, beating out 200 applicants.

The new orchestra gave its first concert Nov. 14, 1968. The program featured pieces by Hector Berlioz and Ottorino Respighi, and culminated in Dmitri Shostakovich's Symphony No. 5.

The orchestra grew, thanks in part to Mr. Hoffman's lobbying efforts.

"He was not afraid to get his hands dirty," said Don Owen, 80, the merged orchestra's founding principal trumpet. "He would go to the Rotary Club and the Lions Club and passionately explain that this area had to have an orchestra just as much as they had to have libraries and schools and hospitals."

In concerts, he sometimes brought in an accomplished solo violinist — his wife, Esther Glazer Hoffman. All four children were required to study an instrument. The family lived on Snell Isle and often gave chamber music performances in the area. They had been taken to rehearsals, concerts and parties with musicians since their childhood in Vancouver, British Columbia, where Mr. Hoffman served as music director from 1952 to 1964. All four went on to become professional classical musicians.

"If any of us had shown a complete indifference to music as a thing to spend a lot of time on, I think we would have been allowed to just leave it alone," said Joel Hoffman, 64, a composer and concert pianist. "I don't think we would have been allowed to not spend at least a year or two practicing an instrument."

Mr. Hoffman was born Nov. 26, 1924, in New York. When he was 6, his father, a violinist, placed a violin under his chin. He began studying the piano around the same time.

"Music was not natural for me," Mr. Hoffman told the Argentine newspaper La Nacion. "As a child I was doing things others were not doing. When they left school, others played baseball but I had to practice."

He discovered a talent for conducting early, debuting at 17 before the Philadelphia Orchestra. He served in the Army during World War II. In a tank riding through Belgium, he always had his violin with him and a score of Bach's Mass in B minor.

In Vancouver, he built what had been a fledging orchestra to a much higher level before being cut loose, his son said. He used a variety of reinforcements to prod Florida Gulf Coast Symphony musicians to play at their best, from an approving glance to public reproach.

At a rehearsal in the '70s, after Moorhead disagreed with his tempo of a clarinet solo, Mr. Hoffman responded with a 30-minute lecture, telling him that "the man on the podium has a bigger picture to paint, and I'm just one of the colors." Moorhead to this day regards the talk as an important lesson about allowing conductors to shape the music, one that might have saved his career.

Other musicians did not feel the same way. Musicians were becoming more organized, twice going on strike in the 1980s. Increasingly, the authoritarian style modeled by Arturo Toscanini fell out of favor. Dissension increased, until in 1987 the orchestra's board eased Mr. Hoffman out.

Joel Hoffman, a professor emeritus at the University of Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music, thinks it was inevitable.

"There is a natural cycle," Joel Hoffman said. "It happens elsewhere and it happened here. It doesn't really make any difference what you were able to accomplish. At a certain point in that cycle, the things that were a part of what made you an invaluable resource there are the things that eventually turn on you."

After 19 years, being forced out of the job was tough, particularly as it came around the same time as his marriage broke up.

"He wasn't really good at understanding that and accepting it and moving on," Joel Hoffman said.

Mr. Hoffman went on to conduct orchestras in Colombia, Costa Rica and Arizona. He married violinist Lourdes Lobo, and conducted Costa Rica's National Symphony Orchestra from 1981 to 2001. In the last year of his life, he remained active in the Youth Symphony Orchestra, which he had helped found. Before a recent illness, Mr. Hoffman was planning to fulfill conducting bookings into September.

Moorhead, who retired last year after more than 40 years with the orchestra, remembers Mr. Hoffman fondly.

"To me, it was undisputed why he should be the dictator or the unquestioned master, at least in my view," he said. "That set a standard for me that influenced however I performed anywhere else in the country or other places."

The gold standard in any musical endeavor, he said, is, "Would this be deserving of a faint smile from the podium from him?"

Contact Andrew Meacham at ameacham@tampabay.com or
(727) 892-2248. Follow @torch437.

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