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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

Records together."

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.

Matt Haimovitz, Domestic Arts Building, Grounds for

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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