Everything That Rises: Our Kind of Spirituals, No. 50: Matt Haimovitz, “The Star-Spangled Banner”

September 14, 2014

Two hundred years ago – September 14, 2014 — Francis Scott Key composed “The Defense of Fort McHenry,” the song we now know as “The Star-Spangled Banner.”

Eighty-three years ago, “The Star-Spangled Banner” was declared the national anthem.

Forty-five years ago, Jimi Hendrix played “The Star-Spangled Banner” with a Stratocaster and a wall of Marshall amplifiers during the Festival of Peace & Music near Woodstock, New York.

Twelve years ago, the cellist Matt Haimovitz played “The Star-Spangled Banner” – Jimi Hendrix’s version – live at CBGB.  The story is told in Reinventing Bach. Haimovitz studied with Yo-Yo Ma, enrolled at Harvard, and then dropped out of college and the classical-music recital circuit at once. The gig at CBGB – in October 2002 – was just one gig in a tour of nightclubs, cafes and restaurants in support of a self-financed CD. He played three of Bach’s cello suites, a recent piece by a living composer, and a four-string acoustic reduction of the Hendrix anthem from Woodstock — rendering feedback, string bends, dive-bomb runs, and discordura, and interpolating a few bars of “Taps.”  TheWall Street Journal‘s critic griped that he couldn’t hear the cello over the clinking bottles.

Three years ago, Haimovitz played the Hendrixian “Star-Spangled Banner” at Zuccotti Park during Occupy Wall Street.

O say, can you hear …

By: Paul Elie

Read at: Everything That Rises

 

JohnMontanari.com: Album du jour: David Krakauer, Matt Haimovitz, et al., “Akoka”

May 11, 2014
Akoka: Reframing Olivier Messiaen's Quartet for the End of Time

Akoka: Reframing Olivier Messiaen’s Quartet for the End of Time

On the cold and rainy night of January 15, 1941, in the unheated Barrack 27 of Stalag VIIIA in Görlitz, Germany, an audience of some 400 prisoners-of-war and guards listened in rapt silence as four musicians, performing on ramshackle instruments, gave the first performance of one of the great chamber works of the 20th century.  While it is doubtful that even the most devoted practitioner of historically-informed performance would want to recreate the premiere of Olivier Messiaen’s “Quatuor pour le fin du temps” (“Quartet for the End of Time”), this amazing backstory adds even further resonance to a work of stunning originality, power and spirit.  (For the full story, Rebecca Rischin’s “For the End of Time: The Story of the Messiaen Quartet” is highly recommended.)

What’s that?  You’ve never heard Messiaen’s Quartet?  Well then, you’re in for an extraordinary musical experience, one which will grow with each hearing.  In eight movements, variously scored for one, two, three or all four instruments, Messiaen combines his favorite preoccupations, such as birdsong, rhythmic and melodic symmetry, synesthesia (e.g., musical rainbows) and fervent, sentimental Catholicism into perhaps this incredibly original composer’s most accessible large-scale work.  Not for nothing has the Quartet appealed over the years to audiences steeped in psychedelia, mysticism, minimalism, new age philosophy, eastern religion and just about every other alternative life- or musical style associated with adventurous youth.

On their splendid, just-released 2008 live concert recording (with violinist Jonathan Crow and pianist Geoffrey Burleson), clarinetist David Krakauer and cellist Matt Haimovitz have framed the Quartet with a works that pay tribute to the remarkable clarinetist of its premiere, an Algerian Jew named Henri Akoka.  As prologue, the four musicians collaborate on a mostly-improvised, electronically-enhanced piece (credited to Krakauer) called “Akoka,” transforming elements of the Messiaen into a Klezmer-ish lament and dance filled with clarinet smears, cello scrapes (much like those Matt Haimovitz employed in his celebrated version of Jimi Hendrix’s “Anthem”), scratchy violin off-beats and strummed piano strings.

For the epilogue, Canadian producer Socalled (Josh Dolgin) “merges live samples of the musicians with old radio broadcasts, hiphop, cantorial singing and markers of time…” into a piece called “MEANWHILE…”  Of all the album’s ten tracks, this will probably age least well, especially its rapped passages.  For the present, it’s a stimulating modern commentary on a great musical work.

But it’s the performance of the Quartet that commends and rewards most of our attention here.  Not that there aren’t excellent alternative versions in the current discography, but this one can take its place with the best of them for both individual and ensemble excellence.  To cite just a few examples:  The quiet central passage of the 2nd movement, “Vocalise, for the Angel Who Announces the End of Time” has rarely been as mesmerizing.  David Krakauer’s superb rendition of the 3rd movement clarinet solo, “Abyss of the Birds,” is filled with personality, subtly reminding us that for all its mellow mellifluousness, the clarinet was also the instrument par excellence of the red light district, the shtetl and the Roma encampment.  And Matt Haimovitz’s modulation of both tone color and vibrato in the sublime 5th movement duo, “Praise to the Eternity of Jesus” are wondrous to hear — artistry of the highest order.

Messiaen’s Quartet for the End of Time is best experienced live — what great work isn’t?  In the meantime, and for keeps, this fine, imaginative CD is highly recommended, and will fit right into your shelf next to your Mahler, your Moby, your Moondog and your Mozart.  At least that’s where it is on my shelf.

By: John Montanari

Read at: JohnMontanari.com

The New York Times, ArtsBeat: Opera America Names Eight Grant Winners

April 2, 2014

Late last year, Opera America set out to encourage women composers to write new operas, and offered incentives, by way of a two-year grant program, underwritten by the Virginia B. Toulmin Foundation. The organization announced the first group of recipients of its Opera Grants for Female Composers on Tuesday. Eight composers, and their proposed projects, were chosen from among 112 eligible applicants. Each will receive a $12,500 grant to help develop her opera.

The winner composers (and projects) are Anna Clyne (“As Sudden Shut”); Michelle DiBucci (“Charlotte Salomon: Death and the Painter”); Laura Kaminsky (“As One”); Kristin Kuster (“Old Presque Isle”); Anne LeBaron (“Psyche & Delia”); Fang Man (“Golden Lily”); Sheila Silver (“A Thousand Splendid Suns”); and Luna Pearl Woolf (“The Pillar”).

The adjudication panel included the vocal coach Susan Ashbaker; the composers Douglas Cuomo and David T. Little; the mezzo-soprano Susanne Mentzer; and the librettist and composer Gene Scheer.

By: ALLAN KOZINN

Read at: The New York Times

The Examiner: Oxingale presents a stunning context for Messiaen on its latest release

Akoka: Reframing Olivier Messiaen's Quartet for the End of Time

Akoka: Reframing Olivier Messiaen’s Quartet for the End of Time

Yesterday Oxingale released a new recording with a somewhat intimidating title, Akoka: Reframing Olivier Messiaen’s Quartet for the End of Time. This title definitely deserves points (and probably extra credit) for truth in advertising. It refers to Henri Akoka, a Jewish clarinetist who met Messiaen on the way to Stalag VIII-A, the prisoner-of-war camp to which Messiaen was sent when he was captured by the German army in June of 1940. While they were in transit to the camp, Messiaen worked up sketches for a clarinet solo that he showed to Akoka. Those sketches would eventually become the “Abîme des oiseaux” (abyss of birds) movement of his “Quatuor pour la fin du temps.” Once at the camp, Messiaen and Akoka met the violinist Jean le Boulaire and the cellist Étienne Pasquier. Messiaen wrote a short trio for clarinet, violin, and cello from which the full quartet eventually emerged and was first performed at the camp (“outdoors and in the rain,” as its Wikipedia page observes) on January 15, 1941 with Messiaen taking the piano part.

On this new recording the performers are Geoffrey Burleson on piano, David Krakauer on clarinet, Jonathan Crow on violin, and Matt Haimovitz on cello. It is, to say the least, one hell of an interpretation, combining connotations of highly free improvisation (as in “Abîme des oiseaux”) with the rhythmically demanding unison for the entire quartet in the “Danse de la fureur, pour les sept trompettes” (dance of fury, for the seven trumpets), requiring the utmost precision for the required uniformity. However, in the midst of all the technical demands lies some of Messiaen’s most visceral efforts at composition. While this is probably a reflection of the composer’s deeply-felt commitment to the Catholic religion, I have previouslyconsidered the possibility that the entire composition is based on a misreading of the tenth chapter of the Book of Revelation. Thus, it is better to approach this music as a series of reflections of apocalyptic visions without worrying about whether or not those visions can be traced back to the New Testament.

In that respect this new recording establishes a context for Messiaen’s quartet that has more to do with the circumstances surrounding the original performers than with Messiaen’s personal articles of faith. It begins with “AKOKA,” which is an almost entirely improvised composition by Krakauer. This suggests (not necessarily accurately) that at least some of the passages that Messiaen composed may have been inspired by his listening to Akoka, le Boulaire, and Pasquier improvising on their respective instruments. It is thus at least remotely possible that “AKOKA” honors a significant precedent, since much of the music that Alban Berg composed for the violin part in his concerto emerged from his listening to improvisations by the violinist who commissioned the concerto, Louis Krasner.

Adventurous as “AKOKA” may be, as a prelude it is a bit modest in comparison with the postlude, entitled “MEANWHILE….” This is the work of Socalled, which is the name that composer Josh Dolgin assumes when he is working as a “beat architect.” The music (and, yes, I have no problem with calling it “music”) is a collage that mixes live samples of the four Messiaen performers with old radio broadcasts (news reports of the Nazi advances during the Second World War), hip-hop, Jewish liturgical incantation, and the steady beats of “markers of time.” Particularly impressive is when Socalled inserts an incessant club-scene beat behind that homophonic “Danse de la fureur” movement. On the one hand this mix affirms the precision with which that music was being played; but, at the same time, it refracts the apocalyptic denotations of the score through a jazzy lens, making for a provocative distortion of Messiaen’s original conception.

Haimovitz has been quoted as saying that the intention of the full program for this recording was to lift Messiaen’s quartet “out of the polite confines of a normal chamber music performance.” He and his colleagues have succeeded admirably; but it is worth noting that they are not the only ones inspired by this “mission statement.” Here in San Francisco in February of 2011, four of the musicians in Nonsemble 6 (originally formed by students at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music to prepare a performance of Arnold Schoenberg’s Opus 21 Pierrot Lunaire) performed Messiaen’s quartet in the Red Poppy Art House surrounded by eight paintings (one for each of the quartet’s movements) by Olivia Lam. Just as Messiaen’s score amounts to a highly individual reading of New Testament scripture, so can performances of this music reflect equally individual readings through other uses of auxiliary media.

By: Stephen Smoliar

Read at: The Examiner

The Economist: Musical instruments on planes: Air with a G-string

March 12, 2014

Matt HaimovitzWHEN Matt Haimovitz (pictured), a concert-hall cellist, travels, he is accompanied by CBBG Haimovitz. That’s Cabin Baggage Haimovitz—Mr Haimovitz’s cello.  “When I was a teenager, my strategy was to sneak my cello onto the plane, smile nicely at the flight attendants and hope that they’d put it in the overhead bin,” says Mr Haimovitz. “It worked around 50% of the time, but the other times they’d tell me that I had to check it, and I couldn’t face it going in the hold, so I started paying for a seat.”

As a well-paid soloist, Mr Haimowitz is lucky that he can afford such a luxury. Others must take a risk. “Seeing your instrument going up the conveyor belt, you don’t know whether you’ll be able to play it after you arrive,” says Ray Hair, president of the American Federation of Musicians. It is a situation that legislators are trying to remedy. Last month, the European Parliament passed a bill requiring airlines to accept smaller instruments such as violins in the cabin. The bill now goes to the European Council, which represents the EU governments. Organisations such as the Musicians’ Union in Britain are backing the idea. It says the current patchwork of rules leads to confusion. Musicians can leave a country on a flight where one regulation applies to instruments, only to find the rules on the return leg are different.

Two years ago, the US Congress instructed the Department of Transportation (DoT) to write a directive requiring airlines to store instruments in overhead bins. Larger instruments weighing less than 165 lbs (75 kg) should be allowed in the plane if the owner buys an extra seat, Congress ordered. But even though the department’s deadline passed last month, the DoT hasn’t even begun writing the rules. IATA, the trade association for the world’s airlines, is relieved. It says that carriers should remain free to set their own prices and policies for onboard musical instruments.

So airbound instruments still face an unknown fate. While most airlines allow small instruments, such as violins, as part of the carry-on baggage allowance, some count it as a second piece of luggage and charge for it. Others, such as Ryanair, only allow smaller instruments in the cabin, and then only if the owner has paid for an additional seat.

On some airlines, owners of large instruments can request they be put in a heated section of the cargo hold. But even though today’s cases are sturdy, the instrument can arrive damaged. When Suzanne Bizet, a Maltese music teacher, booked a ticket to travel to Madrid for a concert, her low-cost airline informed her that she would have to buy an extra seat for her violin. Instead Ms Bizet bought a decent replacment on eBay and had it shipped to Madrid. After a particularly heavy-handed inspection by airport security staff in San Francisco, Timothy Spears, a double-bassist, decided always to travel by car instead. At a recent music competition, one participant went for a more unconventional option still: he left his cello at home, hoping that a member of the resident orchestra would lend him one. A kind player did.

Until the law speaks clearly, musical instruments and aeroplanes will remain an uneasy pairing. Airlines, desperate to cut costs wherever possible, are unlikely to go out of their way to accommodate musicians, especially those flying economy class. But musicians rely on air travel for their livelihoods. As a drummer, Mr Hair always has to put his drums in the cargo, and so far they have survived unscathed. “But it shouldn’t be down to luck,” he says.

How to identify instruments, meanwhile, remains an additional issue for legislators to address. In an age when each seat occupant requires documentation, travellers like CBBG Haimovitz—and Mr Guitar, and Mr Cello, as some musicians call their companions—pose a challenge. And while some airlines issue boarding passes to instruments, others don’t. Yet despite all the hassle, instruments on airplanes sometimes add a humane note to an often-monotonous activity. On a recent trip, a flight attendant asked Mr Haimovitz if he might like to perform a piece in the skies. To the delight of fellow passengers, he got up and played.

By: E.H.B.

Read at: The Economist

Shuffle.Play.Listen

CBC Music: Classical crossover that doesn’t suck, from Punch Brothers to 2Cellos

March 6, 2014

Don’t let anyone tell you that classical crossover is lacking in any sort of artistic merit. At its best, this unfairly victimized genre of music can be just as moving and expressive as the traditional classical music you hear in the concert hall.

Classical crossover has gotten a sour reputation from a few bad apples who tried just a little too hard to be cool. Crossover’s reputation is so bad that many crossover artists despise the label, despite fitting perfectly into the definition of combining classical with other genres.

CBC Music has your guide to classical crossover that doesn’t suck. Hit play on the YouTube playlist below to hear the best of the unfairly maligned genre, then click “open gallery” above to start the guide.

Read and watch at: CBC Music

By: Michael Morreale

Akoka: Reframing Olivier Messiaen's Quartet for the End of Time

Akoka: Reframing Olivier Messiaen’s Quartet for the End of Time

Akoka: Reframing Olivier Messiaen's Quartet for the End of Time

Akoka: Reframing Olivier Messiaen’s Quartet for the End of Time

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“A shatteringly beautiful performance of Olivier Messiaen’s ‘Quartet for the End of Time.'”

-The Jewish Week

In this reframing of Olivier Messiaen’s masterpiece Quartet for the End of Time, clarinetist David Krakauer — praised internationally for his ability to play in a myriad of music genres with “prodigious chops” (The New Yorker) and “soulfulness and electrifying showiness” (The New York Times) — and musical pioneer cellist Matt Haimovitz — described as “one of the leading cellists of his generation” (The New York Times) and “intensely sensitive and perfectly poised (Gramophone Magazine) — have created a recording and live concert experience of great emotional power. Continue reading

The Jewish Week: Hearing A Jewish Downbeat

February 19, 2014

Cellist Matt Haimovitz’s Shoah-tinged ‘Akoka.’

When he was 16, Israeli-born cellist Matt Haimovitz was invited to play Richard Strauss’ “Don Quixote” with the Berlin Philharmonic under the direction of Herbert von Karajan. Berlin? Strauss, a darling of the Nazi regime? Von Karajan, who was a member of the Nazi party? But a career breakthrough of immense proportions.

He was pondering the offer when his grandfather extended another invitation.

“My grandfather took me to Yad Vashem,” he recalled in a telephone interview last week. “The experience was so powerful that I turned them down. It was a very difficult decision. It was a pinnacle on a professional level, but I couldn’t do that to my grandparents.”

Haimovitz’s career survived. He made the difficult transition from prodigy to adult professional by gradually moving away from the standard cello repertoire and expanding his horizons to take in new music and the challenges of experimentation. And he has paid back his debt to his grandparents handsomely with his new album, “Akoka,” a stunning combination of the old and the new that evokes the Shoah in an elegant way.

The centerpiece of the CD is a shatteringly beautiful performance of Olivier Messiaen’s “Quartet for the End of Time,” a deeply spiritual piece of music written while Messiaen was a prisoner in a German POW camp. The clarinetist for whom he wrote the piece was a fellow prisoner, an Algerian Jew named Henri Akoka. When a sympathetic camp guard arranged for Messiaen and the other musicians to be sent back to France, Akoka’s Jewish features led to his being kept in the POW camp. He eventually escaped, jumping from a train with his clarinet under his arm.

Haimovitz has teamed with David Krakauer and Socalled to create two pieces in response to the Messiaen, a composition by Krakauer bearing Akoka’s name, and a mash-up by Socalled that combines the Messiaen with the beat-maker’s usual witty collection of sound bites, musical samples and frisky beats. The result is compelling listening, particularly when you know the story behind the compositions.

“It’s always powerful to play the Messiaen,” Haimovitz said. “To think of the circumstances, that makes it an even more spiritual experience. It’s an extraordinary statement that under those conditions you could come up with something so beautiful and transcendent. It lifts the spirit.”

By: George Robinson
Read at: The Jewish Week

Musical Toronto: Tonight: Cellist Matt Haimovitz prefers to play it eclectic on stage and in the studio

November 5, 2013

Cellist Matt Haimovitz gets his kicks out of mixing it up, playing Arcade Fire at a pop-up concert one day, then restringing his instrument with gut strings to play period Beethoven the next. For tonight’s Toronto visit with the Ontario Philharmonic at Koerner Hall, he reaches into the heart of the repertoire with Ernest Bloch’s Schelomo. Continue reading

The New York Times: A Crushed Spirit, Healed by the Whispers of Angels

October 17, 2013
"Angel Heart" was conceived by Luna Pearl Woolf and  Lisa Delan.

“Angel Heart” was conceived by Luna Pearl Woolf and Lisa Delan.

“There.”

“Do you hear it?”
At the beginning, there is only the voice of Jeremy Irons. Then, the sound of strings: high, sparkling filaments of sound that dance around the narrator’s voice like dust particles catching the light.

There is a whispering of wings in the silence of the night.

They’re coming. With feathers as white as snow and faces as bright as the moonlight:

Angels.

“Angel Heart” is a tender and emotionally astute children’s story told in words and music. Last month it was released as an audiobook CD; on Monday it will be performed live at Zankel Hall with the actor Chris Noth as narrator. Continue reading