Columbia Free Times: Cellist Matt Haimovitz Plays Southern Exposure Series

November 17, 2010

When last we heard Matt Haimovitz’s cello, it was scratching and scraping through a gloriously raucous rendition of Jimi Hendrix’s own rendering of “The Star Spangled Banner.” For more than five concentrated minutes, Haimovitz wrenched every last idiomatic drop from his 300-year-old instrument. To the underage punks outside on State Street, it no doubt sounded like business as usual at New Brookland Tavern. But for those ensconced in the nicotine-seared walls of the Lyons Brothers’ storied venue, it was truly sublime.

That was 2003. And as per the rider on his Anthem tour, there were no stiffs, no blue hairs, no endowments allowed. Haimovitz was intent on bringing “classical music,” whatever that even meant then, into America’s rock clubs. And with canned twilight gleaming across the dilapidated, beer-soaked stage, for a moment at least, both were free. Rock had been enfranchised with intellectual heft, while classical was stripped of its powdered-wig pretensions.

But to hear  Matt Haimovitz tell it himself, it wasn’t that big of a deal.

“It’s really not that novel an idea,” says Haimovitz, the last cellist in Leonard Rose’s Julliard studio and the first to headline CBGB. “People freak out whenever things change, especially those things steeped in tradition. But the whole classical tradition, itself, has forever been a living and breathing, extremely malleable notion.”

And yet, for a musician who made his orchestral debut with Zubin Mehta at the tender age of 13 and has since gone on to solo with the orchestras of Berlin, New York and Chicago, he does admit it’s a little weird.

“I grew up and was trained in the grand, 19th-century virtuoso tradition,” Haimovitz says. “And my teachers, Rose included, never encouraged me to play anything else. But once I struck out on my own, studying improvisation and working with living composers in person, well, I realized just how much I had missed having holed up in the 1800s.”

For Saturday’s performance, John Fitz Rogers and the Southern Exposure New Music Series have secured a proper stage for Matt Haimovitz. No more sticky floors and rancid restrooms for the doe-eyed kid who was backed up by Isaac Stern, Pinchas Zukerman and Mstislav Rostropovich for his first Carnegie Hall gig. One look at the program he and his accompanist Geoffrey Burleson (“my musical soul mate,” Haimovitz gushes) have put together, and you’ll certainly see why.


Featuring names that read like the closing chapter of a music history textbook, always one for firsts, Haimovitz will perform several compositions you’ve likely never heard in concert. Not because they’re all that new, but instead because very few musicians are equipped to actually execute them.

Luciano Berio’s Sequenza is easy enough, one supposes, for a crackerjack like Haimovitz. And we’ve heard some Elliott Carter at Southern Exposure before. Truly unprecedented, though, is the cello and piano arrangement of Pierre Boulez’s Messagesquisse — originally written for solo cello and cello sextet. With Karlheinz Stockhausen’s death in 2007, Boulez remains the last of the arch European modernists. And while Boulez is probably best known as a conductor these days, Messagesquisse is nonetheless a beautifully intricate score.

And as Haimovitz admits, it requires a little more practice than Jimi Hendrix.

“Geoff is the one responsible for the Boulez transcription,” Haimovitz says. “We’ve recorded Carter’s Sonata together already, but we’ve got some work left to do on our Boulez.”
Perhaps the Boston Herald put it best: “If classical music didn’t have Matt Haimovitz, it would have to invent him.”

Luckily for the genre though, “classical music,” whatever that even means still, does have a Matt Haimovitz. And as he closes in on 40, the Israeli-born, American-educated, Canadian transplant seems more than keen to continue wandering down whatever stylistic path his life in music takes him. Thank the classical gods then that he’s found his way back to Columbia for an encore — be it the ivory tower of academia or a rock dive on the wrong side of the river.

Saturday’s concert is at 7:30 p.m. in USC’s Music School Recital Hall. The concert is free.


View article at Columbia Free Times

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