Corrections or additions?
This article was prepared by Elaine Strauss for the March 9, 2005
issue of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.
Cello for the iPod Generation
Cellist Matt Haimovitz likes to do things his own way. Unlike some
artists, who welcome the rephrasing of their remarks by an
interviewer, Haimovitz resisted every one of my suggestions. (U. S. 1,
April 8, 1992). And that was when he was only 21, almost 13 years ago.
He has now arrived at a reconstructed career, turning his back on the
aspirations of most conservatory graduates.
Impelled by what he considers meaningful in music, he has moved beyond
an exclusive recording contract with Deutsche Grammophon, which gave
him the chance to solo with internationally prestigious orchestras and
to produce half a dozen memorable recordings over a period of 10
years. Changing direction, he has taken to performing alone in clubs,
bars, and pizza joints. Forsaking standard concert hall audiences, he
has performed for listeners near his own age, who talked while he was
playing, or wandered off in the middle of a performance.
An album of solo cello music in the making inspires Haimovitz’s
program in the Domestic Arts Building at Grounds for Sculpture, on
Saturday, March 12. The Domestic Arts Building accommodates an
audience of 170 to 200, depending on the number of sculptures being
displayed. The space is small, compared to Richardson Auditorium
(capacity 800) or McCarter Theater (capacity 1,000). But it is
relatively large, compared to the funky venues where Haimovitz draws
only a few dozen listeners.
Interviewed by telephone from Montreal, where he has been a McGill
University faculty member since last fall, Haimovitz calls the Grounds
for Sculpture program a mixture. "It will be Bartok-infused because of
the new album," he says. "There will be music from that, and some
works from ‘Anthem’ [the cellist’s most recent CD]. There will
definitely be Bach, and maybe some of my wife’s music. It will be
Haimovitz’s wife is composer Luna Pearl Woolf. The couple formed
Oxingale Records in 2000 to bring his recordings to the public. The
name comes from the 18th century philosopher Voltaire’s remark about
cellist Jean-Louis Duport, his contemporary: "You know how to turn an
ox into a nightingale."
"Anthem" is Haimovitz’s most recent release on the Oxingale label. The
title track is an over-the-top performance of "The Star Spangled
Banner," modeled after Jimi Hendrix’s playing of the piece on electric
guitar at Woodstock in 1969. Haimovitz recorded the track live on his
1710 acoustic cello at CBGB, the New York City rock club. Made after
9/11, its shrieks and sirens are political commentary, just as
Hendrix’s Vietnam era performance was. Other tracks on the album
consist of compositions by American composers, including Haimovitz’s
wife and Haimovitz himself. Repeatedly, the CD evokes the sounds of
that cornerstone of cello literature, Johann Sebastian Bach’s six
suites for unaccompanied cello. However it is laden with pings, taps,
booms, pops, squeaks, and slithers that lie outside of Bach’s aural
Oxingale’s first release, in 2001, was the monumental Bach suites for
unaccompanied cello. Haimovitz was invited to perform the cycle in a
single evening for a celebration of the 250th anniversary of Bach’s
death. Subsequently, he took the pieces across America to coffee
houses and clubs where classical music is rarely played in a project
he called "The Bach Listening Room Tour." The tour opened in a jazz
and folk-music venue in Northhampton, Massachusetts.
Bringing the Bach Suites for unaccompanied cello to first-time
listeners, who would hear the music with unprejudiced ears, restored
Haimovitz’s sense of authenticity as a performer. "There have been a
couple of times when concerts were sold out, and we began to approach
my usual classical fee," he told Tim Smith of the Baltimore Sun. "But
that’s rare. I’m definitely doing this out of a spirit of adventure;
I’m willing to take less money for that. I don’t need zillions of
dollars. We’re pouring our money into where our heart is."
Changing gears from Bach, Haimovitz is currently nearing the end of a
50-state tour with a program based on "Anthem," which began on
September 11, 2003. The tour has now reached 49 states. An Alaska
concert in June completes the project.
Haimovitz was born in Israel to an engineer father and a pianist
mother. When he was four, the family moved to Palo Alto, California.
Separated in the mid 1980s, both parents are now remarried.
Haimovitz’s mother now runs "The Fox and Hound," a bed and breakfast
in Saratoga Springs, New York. His father is a Palo Alto financial
Haimovitz started studying cello in California at age seven. When he
was 10, Itzhak Perlman heard him in a Santa Barbara master class and
brokered his studying with Leonard Rose, the master cellist, at New
York’s Juilliard School. When Haimovitz was 12 the family moved to New
York. Haimovitz was Rose’s last pupil, and Rose, who died in 1984,
called him "probably the greatest talent I have ever taught."
Taken ill before a Carnegie Hall performance of Franz Schubert’s
two-cello quintet, Rose asked the 13-year-old Haimovitz to substitute.
Haimowitz told Ben Fogelson of the Eugene, Oregon, Weekly about the
experience. "I was very honored to be asked, and one of my cello
idols, Rostropovich, was playing as well. The only thing was that I’d
learned the second cello part, not the first. Rostropovich was
insistent that I play the first. So I spent all night practicing my
part, which I’d never played before. I was too nervous and focused to
really know what was going on."
As a high school student at New York’s demanding Collegiate School,
Haimovitz juggled performance appearances and classroom obligations.
On his first European tour in 1989, one of his school assignments was
to keep a journal. An adaptation of the independent study project
appeared in the February, 1991, "Classical" magazine as "Tales from
Vienna: A Cellist’s Journal."
At 15 Haimovitz was the youngest artist ever to receive the Avery
Fisher Career Grant Award. A prestigious jury selects a promising
artist from the entire musical scene and confers the award without
holding a competition.
Entering Princeton in the Class of 1993, Haimovitz remained enrolled
long enough to impress composer Steven Mackey, one of his professors,
who helped him on the path to improvisation. "He is a fantastic
cellist," Mackey said. "To have the polish and refinement of a
well-trained classical musician with an enormous amount of talent is
already amazing. But he is also adventurous, open-minded, and becoming
more so all the time. He will be around for a long time because of
that." The two appeared together in concerts in New York and Paris.
After playing standard repertory for cello and electric guitar,
Mackey’s instrument, they improvised on Romanian folk themes.
Haimovitz left Princeton in 1991 because of the difficulty of
simultaneously building a career and meeting the demands of college.
"It came down to running out of hours. You have to make choices and I
didn’t want to sacrifice quality," he says. Thinking of Princeton as a
second home, he imagined that he would one day come back.
"I needed to take two or three years to focus on music and perform,"
Haimovitz says. "Then I thought I needed to invest in myself as a
human being." He applied to Harvard without the knowledge of either
his management or his family. Graduating in 1996, he majored in
anthropology and music, and wrote a senior thesis, optional at
Harvard, on "Analytical, Musicological, and Performance Perspectives
on Beethoven’s Op. 102," the last two of the composer’s five sonatas
for cello and piano.
"And this led directly to your playing in clubs and bars?" I ask. "It
makes you wonder," Haimovitz says. "In some ways, it did. I met my
wife at Harvard. It led to our thinking about clubs together. We asked
ourselves how to bring music to people. Her father is an architect, an
amateur cellist, and a pianist. The family was open to jamming of
different styles. It was a free musical household. They listened to
rock and roll, folk, jazz, and classics." The family tradition had a
broadening effect on Haimovitz.
Like performing in non-classical venues, the couple’s record label has
been very much a joint project. "I liked the idea of doing things on
my own terms," Haimovitz says, "and Luna had great ideas about
packaging the recordings with a folksy feel. Something about having
this artistic control was very meaningful for us."
The move to McGill from the University of Massachusetts in Amherst,
where Haimovitz had headed the cello department since 1999, was also a
joint decision. "McGill has a great music school," he says. We didn’t
know much about Montreal, but we fell in love with the city. I
couldn’t really move without consulting my wife. We founded Oxingale
Luna Pearl Woolf’s next composition will be a concerto for Haimovitz
and choir. Her current project invites her husband to tease her.
"She’s working on an orchestral commission for three violas," he says.
"I tell her she should call it ‘No Joke.’"
By now, Haimovitz has probably shared with Woolf a fresh observation
he makes to me about a recent concert that featured multiple cellos.
"Last week I was performing at the El Rey Theater in Albuquerque, New
Mexico," he says. "There were a lot of rockers. I was joined by
members of the New Mexico Symphony. We played Bach, Ligeti,
Boccherini, Puccini, Mozart, my arrangement of a Led Zeppelin piece,
and the Vivaldi double concerto. I thought, ‘This is a schizophrenic
program.’ Then I had a revelation: This is the way we experience music
today. The Zeppelin and the Vivaldi had to be put into a different
context. They both came out the fresher for it. Most people listen to
a mix of styles and genres. It’s like the iPod experience, the
shuffle. It’s our information-age way of experiencing music." Maybe
Woolf will incorporate something of her husband’s revelation into one
of her next compositions.
Sculpture, 18 Fairgrounds Road, Hamilton. Saturday, March 12, 7:30
p.m. $15 members; $20 non-members. Call 609-586-0616, ext. 20 for
reservations. Dinner available prior to the concert, 5:30 to 7 p.m.
Call 609-890-6015 for reservations.
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