Ellen Hoffman

pianist/composer

This is not the typical bio that I usually write. First I want to acknowledge Ward Spangler, terrific percussionist, who has been extraordinarily helpful to me through the years, giving me great ideas about writing for percussion. 

But mostly I want to write about Michael Morgan. This is the first Let Us Break Bread together concert without him. 

I had the privilege & pleasure of working with Michael since 1991. Thanks to Michael’s encouragement, I found out that I loved writing for choir & orchestra. When we first met, Michael told Terrance Kelly & me that he had long held a vision of a concert with different kinds of choirs onstage with the orchestra, representing different kinds of music & cultures. He told us that when he was in Chicago, he had presented this idea several times, but no one liked the idea. When he came to Oakland, in his very 1st year, he presented that same idea, and everyone said WHAT A GOOD IDEA! He said that’s when he knew he wanted to stay in Oakland. I love this story – because it shows so much about his vision.  It turns out that his vision had a major effect on my musical life.

At that first meeting, we were tossing around ideas about what music to have in the concert. I mentioned that Terrance had a beautiful a cappella arrangement of the hymn Let Us Break Bread Together. Michael asked if I would write an arrangement for the gospel choir & orchestra.  I said I’d never done that before, but I would give it a try.  Michael liked the arrangement so much that he programmed it every year, and eventually named this concert the Let Us Bread Bread Together concert. Big honor!  

Michael wasn’t one for giving lots of praise verbally. Sometimes after the rehearsal he would say “This will work” or “It’s fine” — and that’s all he would say. But for the next 29 years (except for Covid cancelling everything in 2020) he kept inviting me to write more arrangements, often collaborating with Terrance. I took that as a good sign! 

Once I arranged a contemporary spiritual of I Don’t Want No Trouble at the River, with Terrance’s stunning a cappella arrangement – written by LA composer Margaret Deveroux.  I kept the arrangement sparse – for choir, strings & piano – in keeping with the haunting choral music. At the end of that rehearsal, Michael came up to me, looked at me, started shaking my hand – and would NOT let go – for what seemed like a very long time!  Several orchestra members were watching.  I have never forgotten that.  

Another time, the symphony & choirs were rehearsing an arrangement written by a well-known arranger (whose name I have mercifully forgotten). It seemed to me that something else was needed in the music.  It also became clear that Michael was NOT  happy with the arrangement. The piano part had lots of rests, so I asked if he would like me to improvise whenever there was no written piano part. He answered “Please keep improvising, and don’t stop!”  After the concert, he came up to me and told me that I had “saved the piece”. I have never forgotten that either.  

(Michael had once told me that that he greatly admired pianists who could improvise, and had tried himself, when he was younger – but he “just didn’t have it.” ) 

Once in the very early years he asked me to play piano in Britten’s unique piece Noah’s Fludde, and told me he was looking for a strong contralto to sing the part of Mrs. Noah. Could I recommend someone?  I told him I knew someone who would be great. Her name was Lynne Morrow. That’s how they met.  Later she became director of Oakland Symphony Chorus. And she is conducting the concert today!  I feel very happy to have introduced them! 

Once Michael came up to me after a rehearsal of a new arrangement I had written, and said “Ellen, I think I know what you’re going for, in that middle section.  For those 8 bars, it would be more effective if you exchanged the music between the horns & the trombones.” GREAT suggestion!  Michael was giving me an instant orchestration lesson!   

Michael’s sense of humor is legendary. Once Michael invited a Mariachi band for the concert. Michael walked out wearing a gigantic Mariachi hat, and the whole audience cracked up, because the hat was bigger than he was!  I have many more Michael stories, including the time that the orchestra played a Star Trek re-do of a Mozart opera, and Michael came onstage to conduct wearing a Star Trek uniform!  I could NOT stop laughing!  

Here’s my last story for now: Once I was playing the opening piano solo in Let Us Break Bread Together, and for some reason, I took my eyes off the page, and off the piano keyboard, and looked over in Michael’s direction. To my surprise our eyes met. He was looking at me, smiling. I smiled back.  Beautiful memory.

I wrote this in the score of Hit the Road, Jack: “Dedicated to Michael Morgan, who always encouraged me to keep writing”.

Thanks for everything, Michael.

~ Ellen Hoffman