Q & A with Matt Haimovitz – Cellist’s repertoire spans Bach to Hendrix

April 22, 2010

Israeli-born cellist Matt Haimovitz — an  acclaimed virtuoso whose eclectic repertoire spans Bach to Bartók to Jimi Hendrix — will grace the stages of two local venues in May, performing benefit concerts for Rachel’s Table and the Food Bank of Western Massachusetts.

Haimovitz’s biography is beyond  impressive. Born to Romanian immigrant parents in 1970 in Bat Yam,  Israel, he was discovered by Itzhak Perlman at age 12, debuted at 13 as a  soloist with Zubin Mehta and the Israel Philharmonic, and at 17 signed  an exclusive record contract with Deutsche Grammophon. Several of his early recordings of classical and experimental repertoire won international awards; by 2000, he had formed his own record label, Oxingale.

His family moved to California when he was 5, and  relocated to New York in 1983 so that he could study with acclaimed  cellist Leonard Rose at the Juilliard School. Rose has described  Haimovitz as “probably the greatest talent I have ever taught,” praising  his “ravishingly beautiful tone” and “unusual sense of style and musical sensitivity.” The New Yorker dubbed him “an expressive maximalist who calls forth a dazzling spectrum of sounds from the depths  of his instrument.”

The Oregonian wrote, “Haimovitz is  reinventing the classical recital to get closer to the music, closer to  listeners… he moves fluidly between two traditionally distinct  domains: the rarified musical world he inhabited in the 1980s as a teen  cello prodigy, and the gritty clubs and punk hangouts where a full house  might number 50 people.”

Haimovitz has concertized with the New York Philharmonic orchestra, as well as in numerous  prestigious venues across Europe, Asia, and North America.  A graduate  of both Juilliard and Harvard, he taught at UMass/Amherst from 1999 to  2004, and currently teaches at McGill University’s Schulich School of  Music. He lives in Montreal with his wife, composer Luna Pearl Woolf,  and their two young daughters.

Haimovitz will appear on May 12 at 7 p.m. at Longmeadow’s Glenbrook Middle School, and May 13 at 7:30 p.m.  at the National Yiddish Book Center. Both concerts were underwritten by  the Grinspoon Foundation. He recently shared some thoughts with the  Jewish Ledger.

Q: You are known for your openness  to playing in a wide variety of venues. How different does it feel to  play at a “soft seat” concert hall, from the way it feels to perform for  a smaller audience at a club or bookstore?

A: I feel  strongly that there is value in experiencing great music in both a large  concert hall and also in a more intimate space like a rock ‘n roll  club. I want to bring a sense of adventure and intimacy back into the  concert experience. This can mean a simple change of venue and context,  an unexpected juxtaposition of programming, or a few words or offbeat  shoes — any gesture of humanity from the performer. I play for whomever  will listen: young or old, classical or indie rock lovers, they are all  welcome. Having these diverse audiences sit side by side listening to a  Bach Cello Suite or a Ligeti Solo Sonata is electric.

Q: Why  is a Matteo Gofriller cello your instrument of choice?

A: I  have had my cello for over 20 years, after finding it in a shop in  London. At that time I was playing a borrowed Matteo Gofriller cello; it  was the cello of the legendary cellist Pablo Casals. So I am not alone  among cellists who gravitate to the sound of this cello! There is a  penetrating depth and texture to the sound of a Gofriller cello. Each  one has a strong personality, and they are known for the richness of the  bass. After all of these years we know each other unbelievably well,  and yet there is still a sense of wonder in the voice we create  together. This is a special year for my instrument; it just turned 300  years old!



Q: You have a pretty taxing tour schedule. How does  this affect your family life? (And, by the way, mazel tov on the birth  of your new daughter!)

A: Thank you for the mazel tov. Of  course, having children changes everything, your perspective, your  measure of success … We have been doing a lot of cooking lately! It’s  fun to go back to some of the cuisine of my own childhood, growing up in  a Romanian/Israeli household. Outside of the family, I teach a full  studio of cellists at McGill University, and share the Chair  responsibilities of the String Area. My wife Luna and I run our  independent record label, Oxingale. It’s not easy, but one thing I have  learned over the years is that the more you take on, the more you seem to be able to take on. If I could, I would bring my family with me  always. We will be on tour together over the next few months, including the trip back “home” to Western Massachusetts.

Q: What did  your Anthem Tour mean to you, both personally and musically?

A:  The Anthem Tour (2003-2004) was a celebration of living American  composers through all 50 states. The adventure was particularly  fascinating during that time period, running alongside a divisive and acrimonious Presidential campaign. I witnessed first hand how, on the  one hand, music can provoke strong emotions and, on the other, how it can bring people together and help break through their ideological  differences. On a musical level, I was fulfilling what I see as one of  my artistic responsibilities to advocate for composers and keep  breathing the classical tradition; on a personal level, it felt good to  be a citizen, to do something productive for the community. I encourage  every citizen to make the journey through the extraordinary diversity and beauty of our cultures and landscapes.

Q: What kind of  music do you listen to for personal enjoyment?

A: Much of  what I listen to is for study. Lately we have had some opera around the  house as my three year old is drawn to it. Mostly I listen to classical,  including quite a bit of contemporary classical music. I love jazz, which has led to the project I am bringing to Western Mass. — my  ensemble Uccello, comprised of my top cello students from McGill  University. My good friend and colleague, David Sanford, professor at  Mt. Holyoke College, has re-invented the cello ensemble, creating  extraordinary arrangements of pieces by Charles Mingus, Ornette Coleman,  Miles Davis, John McLaughlin, Billy Strayhorn, and others. Someone once said “there are two kinds of music, the good kind and the other kind.”  No matter what genre, as long as it speaks to me, my ears are always open.

Award-winning musician and writer Judy Polan  ( is a contributing editor for Style 1900 magazine,  design and travel writer for Modernism, and frequent contributor to the  Jewish Ledger.

By Judy Polan

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