The Boston Globe: Haimovitz’s productive tension

June 26, 2009

Photo by David Weininger

Cellist is free-spirited about mixing classical, modern

There’s a sort of paradox in the artistic spirit of cellist Matt Haimovitz. He is best known as a prodigy-turned-apostate. Almost a decade ago, having forsaken the rote life of the high-flying soloist, Haimovitz began playing solo concerts in coffee houses, bars, restaurants – anywhere he could detach himself from the often stifling atmosphere of classical performance and revive an authentic connection with listeners. That such outings seem commonplace today is largely a testament to his success, and to the commitment he brought to the endeavor.

But though his image as a pioneer and free spirit is accurate and honestly won, Haimovitz is in some other ways a quite orthodox musician. Were he around 150 years ago, “I’d be perfectly happy working with [Robert] Schumann on his concerto and playing it around,” he says during a phone conversation from his home in Montreal.

“My musical history is ingrained in the classical tradition,” Haimovitz adds. “No matter how far I depart from that, that’s still the heart of what I really believe in. So in that sense, I’m always going to be thinking about how to work in the orchestra world and traditional chamber music.”

One thing that is indisputable about Haimovitz is that he is constantly busy. “No summer vacation this year,” he jokes as he lays out a series of current and upcoming projects – tours, festival appearances, a new recording – while his 2-year-old daughter competes for his attention.

Two of those projects will bring him to Boston. This Saturday he performs in a free concert at Harvard with the Palo Alto Chamber Orchestra (of which he is an alumnus) on its first East Coast tour. He will play “Max’s Moon” by Luna Pearl Woolf, his wife, and an arrangement of Schubert’s “Arpeggione” sonata. He returns next month to play the Schumann concerto at Jordan Hall with the Youth Orchestra of the Americas.

The concert with the Palo Alto group (Haimovitz was a member decades ago) encapsulates the productive tension between tradition and avant-garde that animates the cellist’s work. There is the Schubert, a repertoire staple, being served in a new guise. The Woolf piece takes its inspiration from two beloved children’s stories, “Where the Wild Things Are” and “Goodnight, Moon.” Much of it has the feel of a lullaby, though Haimovitz notes that “as with a lot of Luna’s music, it looks simple at first glance but it’s a lot harder once you start putting it together.”

Lately, much of Haimovitz’s energy has been devoted to an unexpected undertaking: a Montreal venue called ex-Centris. It was formerly a center of the city’s independent film scene, before owner Daniel Langlois decided earlier this year to transform it into a music club, with a quarter of its programming being dedicated to classical and new music.

Composer Luna Pearl Woolf

Composer Luna Pearl Woolf

Langlois brought in Woolf to be its artistic director, and Haimovitz is curating classical performances. “I’ve been sort of the adviser from the inception, just learning from experiences I’ve had what we need for the ideal classical music environment.” He speaks excitedly of the club’s technological capacities and envisions a place that can “go from putting on Purcell’s ‘Dido and Aeneas’ in the opening week to Lou Reed or something the next day.”

As hip as this all sounds, though, his plan for the opening-night event is surprisingly conventional: a performance of Brahms’s well-worn Piano Quintet, with an A-list of performers that includes pianist Leon Fleisher and violinist Pamela Frank. “We go from tradition,” he explains, “but hearing that in a 300-person space with people with drinks in their hands – to me, the dream is finally getting realized.”

That dream, and his efforts to bring it about, are likely to be seen as Haimovitz’s signature achievement, at least in the near future. But though he’s proud of his efforts to get classical music into new settings, he isn’t keen to linger on them too long. Besides, he is only 38, and there are undoubtedly a host of discoveries and rediscoveries ahead.

“That’s what I really find exciting about this particular time. Anything goes, to some extent, and you can just throw yourself into it, go out on a limb, and see what happens. But at the same time, I know I’m really going to really enjoy playing the ‘Arpeggione.’ ”

At Sanders Theatre, Harvard University; 617-496-2222,

by David Weininger

View article at Boston Globe

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