Review: Matt Haimovitz plays the Tractor Tavern

January 25, 2010

Celebrating the 300th birthday of his cello, the concert adventurer Matt Haimovitz returned to Seattle’s Tractor Tavern Wednesday night for a one-man show that sold out the bar. Some 250 seated and standing fans filled the funky place where Haimovitz performed Hendrix not so long ago, backed by a band of students, to plug his CD “Anthem.” This time, he’s touring alone, behind his new album, “Figment.” The title is that of a multi-part work by the American composer Elliott Carter, now 101 years old and still stretching the ears of concertgoers.

He didn’t start with the Carter, though: it followed the first of several Ricercare by the Italian composer Domenico Gabrielli, a cellist whose life predated that of Haimovitz’s 1710 instrument by a few decades. Savvy programming: he paired each contemporary piece with one of these Baroque solos, which worked both as matched sets and as a kind of musical sorbet between courses. Savvy, also, was Haimovitz’s bar-friendly patter: one of the Ricercare, heavy on the bass line, he described as “some of those licks and lines that Gabrielli must’ve been playing all the time.” From some classical performers, that kind of comment might come across as pandering; for Haimovitz, it’s simply home.



Microphone attached to his treasured Gofriller, the muscular, ponytailed cellist adjusted the reverb before launching into the Canadian composer Ana Sokolovic’s “Rez.” Shockingly evocative of Vivaldi’s “Summer” in its opening moments, the piece invokes a whole orchestra in the solo instrument. Haimovitz devours the challenge of speeding dance rhythms, lengthy passages played in harmonics, the bow busy with an insistent beat on one string, a melody on another. (Canada is where Haimovitz makes his home, on the music faculty at McGill University.)

In another inspired bit of stage patter following another Gabrielli Ricercar, Haimovitz noted that Baroque composers left room for performers to improvise, while contemporary composers tend to dictate every note: “It’s amazing what happened in 300 years; composers lost all trust in us!”

The composer Luna Pearl Woolf (married to Haimovitz) wrote a Sarabande, a dance form common in Baroque suites, which the cellist described as “the lascivious dance of Spain.” Before he played it, he assured the audience that “at its heart there is a Bach-like tune.” (Good thing; kept us listening hard.) The piece ranges from feathery harmonics to great squeaking static (Hendrix’s shadow?).

For this listener, the music in these sets (not a “concert with intermission” but “first set” and “second set”) is best appreciated live; I surely would miss some of the experience without watching Haimovitz’s intense and committed performance, surrounded by his collegial commentary.

He played the jazz composer David Sanford’s “7th Avenue Kaddish,” which Haimovitz commissioned after the 9/11 attacks: he described the piece as a hybrid between a sax and a cantor as the buildings collapsed, inspired by Coltrane’s “A Love Supreme.” He played another Canadian composer, Gilles Tremblay, who uses microtonal music (“so if it sounds like I’m playing out of tune—he asks for that”), Eastern-inspired, in his “Threnody for Lebanon.” Steven Stucky’s “Dialoghi,” inspired by Italy, written for one of Haimovitz’s students, wandered through Lutoslawski territory, concluding in a beautiful finale.

The audience applause that burst out when the first encore began just shows the power of the hit tune you’ve been waiting all evening for: the prelude from Bach’s first cello suite, followed by the allemande from Bach’s 6th suite. The need to remember where home is touches even the most adventurous programmer, and even his most enthusiastic fans.

by Gigi Yellen

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