In October, more than 500 patrons of the Aiken Symphony honored Tom Hofstetter with a standing ovation for his contributions to the orchestra and Aiken's arts community.
“I was so very humbled by that. I realized then that it just wasn't me. It wasn't me,” he said during a recent interview at his home in Aiken. “I believe music can touch people in a lot of ways. Music adds value to life. It does to me.”
Hofstetter, who retired to Aiken from Connecticut in 1998, founded the Aiken Symphony Orchestra in 2015. In five seasons, the orchestra's programs have grown from three concerts during that first year to 11 during 2019-20. The orchestra's December 2019 concert, “Home for the Holidays,” sold out USC Aiken's Etherredge Center.
Hofstetter said several “principal events” had to occur before the symphony's opening concert and its ultimate success.
“Each was a critical step in the audience ladder that contributed to the final conclusion that our small Southeastern city could and would support a full professional symphony orchestra,” Hofstetter said. “As the years went by, they fell into place of their own accord.”
First, Hofstetter said he had to provide “hard proof” that a “first-class” symphony orchestra could draw a large audience in Aiken.
In February 2008, Hofstetter proved that point when he helped bring the National Symphony Orchestra from Washington, D.C., to the recently opened USCA Convocation Center. The concert attracted not only the largest audience in the orchestra's statewide tour of South Carolina but also was the largest audience to attend a symphony concert in the history of Aiken, Hofstetter said.
“We put 2,744 people in that building,” he said. “That made me feel so good. We proved it.”
Second, Hofstetter said he needed to prove a concert featuring a soloist “with excellent credentials on the national stage” would “draw a substantial audience” in Aiken.
In March 2010, Arthur Tollefson, a pianist and an internationally recognized Steinway artist, performed with the University of South Carolina Symphony Orchestra, under the baton of Dr. Donald Portnoy, conductor. The performance attracted 587 patrons, Hofstetter said.
Third, Hofstetter said he needed a concert to honor the City of Aiken “to demonstrate the role a symphony orchestra can play in improving the quality of life of the community.”
In November 2010, the USC Symphony Orchestra, again conducted by Portnoy, presented a “Musical Tribute to Aiken's 175th Anniversary” at First Baptist Church, Aiken, attracting 800 people.
Fourth, Hofstetter said he needed “to present a concert by a locally developed professional symphony orchestra, accompanying a leading musical artist with world renowned credentials.”
In April 2011, Frederica von Stade, who starred at the Metropolitan Opera in New York and sang on opera stages and in concert halls around the country and the world, performed with the Orchestra of the Midlands, with Portnoy conducting, as part of her farewell world tour. An audience of 650 filled the Etherredge Center, Hofstetter said.
Von Stade, who has family ties to Aiken's Winter Colony, also conducted a master class for college students from South Carolina, North Carolina and Georgia. The winner sang with von Stade on the concert stage.
“I know the aunt of Frederica von Stade, probably the greatest mezzo-soprano this country has ever produced – internationally famous,” Hofstetter said. “She was retiring. She was going around the world, playing Paris and London. I said why don't you come to Aiken. We need you. We got her here. We had a concert.”
Finally, Hofstetter said he needed to present a symphony orchestra concert at a local church “as an audience builder” and to present a children's concert for families and younger children.
In October 2011, a concert entitled “Tribute to Menotti” with the Orchestra of the Midlands drew 600 concertgoers to First Presbyterian Church, Aiken. In January 2012, the Rev. Dr. Fred Andrea, who then was the pastor of First Baptist Church, Aiken, narrated the “Peter and the Wolf” family concert with the Orchestra of the Midlands at the Etherredge Center.
“As the years went on, I realized that we were on a path to the development of a professional orchestra at an appropriate time,” Hofstetter said. “When the late Richard Smith contacted me and asked if I could form a local orchestra, I felt fully prepared to take the step.”
Hofstetter contacted Portnoy and asked him to join the effort to bring a symphony orchestra to Aiken.
“He agreed. From that time forward, we worked together closely without any formal agreement between us until the Aiken Symphony Orchestra became a reality,” Hofstetter said. “The original Orchestra of the Midlands, a name I coined, was dropped in favor of Aiken Symphony Orchestra.”
Portnoy continues to conduct the Aiken Symphony Orchestra and is its music director.
In addition to his work with the Aiken Symphony, Hofstetter created and managed the Aiken Performing Arts Group, now known as Aiken Performing Arts, which has presented more than 100 professional shows in Aiken and provided outreach performances by professional artists to Aiken County Public Schools' students across the county.
Hofstetter created the “Instruments in Your Attic” program, which collects, repairs and distributes donated musical instruments to children in Aiken County schools.
Hofstetter also was instrumental in bringing students and faculty from The Juilliard School, the private performing arts conservatory in New York City, to Aiken to perform concerts during the 2005-2008 Aiken Performing Arts Group seasons. Juilliard students presented outreach programs to wounded veterans at the Eisenhower Army Medical Center at Fort Gordon and in Aiken County schools. Together with Juilliard, Hofstetter implemented the first string master class for high school students in Aiken County.
“My commitment to this community is to improve the quality of life, not just for me, but for everybody,” Hofstetter said.
Outside Aiken, Hofstetter created the Star Spangled Banner Tattoo at the Fort McHenry National Historic Site in Baltimore and was the executive vice president and president emeritus of the Norwalk Symphony Orchestra in Connecticut.
Hofstetter was born and raised in Baltimore. His dad worked at a gas plant, and his mom taught school.
A history major, he graduated from Washington College, named after George Washington and one of the oldest colleges in America, in Chestertown, Maryland. After law school at the University of Maryland, Hofstetter served in U.S. Army intelligence in Korea in the mid-1950s.
“I had one of the greatest experiences any man could every have,” he said. “I loved it. It made me a man. I enjoyed that immensely.”
After his military service, Hofstetter developed a successful sales and marketing career in finance in brokerage firms in the Northeast.
He was the vice chairman of the marketing committee of the New York Stock Exchange for a number of years. He also helped establish the first partnership between a brokerage firm and a major insurance company in America, allowing brokerage firms to sell insurance products.
In 1964, Hofstetter ran for the Seventh U.S. Congressional District, which includes much of Baltimore and most recently was held by the late Elijah Cummings.
During his campaign, Hofstetter received an endorsement from U.S. President Dwight D. Eisenhower, who spoke and received an honorary degree when Hofstetter graduated from Washington College. When Hofstetter met Eisenhower in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, where he had retired, for the endorsement, he couldn't think of anything to say.
“What do you say to Eisenhower, the man who commanded the troops, probably the greatest man of his generation in America?” Hofstetter said. “He turned to me and said, 'Tom, I'll never forget the day I gave you your diploma when I spoke at Washington College in Chestertown, Maryland.' That's how quick-minded the man was. It was the greatest honor for me.”
Hofstetter has a black-and-white photo of him and Eisenhower on a bookshelf in his study.
Hofstetter also keeps the plaque, featuring a conductor's baton, he received from the Aiken Symphony in October on that bookshelf as a reminder that music has been his passion since childhood. He cited two pieces that influenced his early love of music.
“I heard the '1812 Overture' with the cannons and the theme for the 'Lone Ranger,'” Hofstetter said, humming the well-known notes – da da da, da da da, da da da da da – from the Lone Ranger's TV theme song, aka the “William Tell Overture.”
But although Hofstetter always loved music, his training as a musician was short-lived.
Hofstetter's mother wanted him to play the piano.
“I love the piano. I tried very hard as a little kid, but I couldn't translate, as a kid, what I saw on the page to my fingers. So I memorized everything,” Hofstetter said. “You get to a point where you memorized, and then you can't memorize any more because you're not that old. I guess I was 6 or 7.”
When it was time for his piano recital, Hofstetter locked himself in the bathroom until the recital was over.
“They had to get the firemen involved to get me out, and that was the end of my playing the piano. But I love the music,” he said.