Montreal Gazette: Uccello jazzes it up for credit and receives a Grammy nod

February 12, 2011

Many artists have been nominated over many years for many Grammy Awards in many categories. It would take more than a little research to determine whether Uccello, an octet comprising cellist Matt Haimovitz and the pick of his McGill University students, is the first ensemble ever nominated for passing a credit course.

That course, offered by the Schulich School of Music, is MUEN 560, Chamber Music Ensemble. And the outcome last year, Meeting of the Spirits, is up against such professional name brands as Jessye Norman, the Silk Road Ensemble and Bobby McFerrin, for best classical crossover album.

“I’ve had good students right from the start,” Haimovitz said of his career as a professor at Schulich. “But this time we had seven who could play at that level.”Meeting of the Spirits

What level? A level high enough to justify a U.S. tour last May that ended up with a concert for the Violoncello Society of New York. And high enough to record a program of entirely new arrangements by the noted American big-band composer David Sanford, made in the underground Multi-Media Room by the well-known American producer David Frost. Both tour and recording session were part of the curriculum.

The sounds on Meeting of the Spirits -high or low, lyrical or percussive -are almost pure cello. The only add-ons are an electric guitar solo by John McLaughlin (the composer of the title track) and a few subtle keyboard contributions from Jan Jarczyk and drumming by Matt Wilson.

These are not names that imply classical music, and the sound of Meeting of the Sprits is indeed predominantly jazzy. Tracks include a pizzicato treatment of Blues in A minor by John Lewis for the Modern Jazz Quartet, a sweetly understated version of Billy Strayhorn’s valedictory Blood Count and Liza, a song by George Gershwin performed in the Hot Club style of Django Reinhardt and Stephane Grappelli.

Other works are by Miles Davis, Ornette Coleman, Charles Mingus, McLaughlin and Sanford.

Haimovitz plays many of the solos, but some are by students Amaryllis Jarczyk, Dominic Painchaud and Leanna Rutt. The last pays tribute to Grappelli very convincingly.

If there is any classical content, it can be surmised by the clarity of the playing and the refined production. Cellists do not sound this good without being, as they say, classically trained. Not that there are many other ways of being trained on the cello.

Haimovitz himself, though well known for his crossover exploits, was classically trained under Leonard Rose and Yo-Yo Ma. He still does Dvorak. I know this because I spent many minutes last spring in a gas station, ignition off, waiting out a superb broadcast (sometimes CBC Radio Two gets it right) of the super standard Cello Concerto with Symphony Nova Scotia under Bernhard Gueller.

Haimovitz also thought the performance went well. One reason was that the conductor started his career as a cellist.

The other Uccello members -“Uccelli?” Haimovitz asks -are also fully classical. Two of the four Haimovitz took to Los Angeles Thursday for a performance yesterday at the Canadian consulate will miss the ceremony and party. They had to return to Montreal on a red-eye last night for the inhouse concerto competition at Schulich.

“Playing Shostakovich and Dvorak, I should add,” Haimovitz says.

Meeting of the Spirits is not the only recording with Canadian classical content in the Grammys this year. Marc-Andre Hamelin (who played in the Grammy broadcast of 2007) has an entry in the Best Instrumental Soloist Performance category.

The extraordinary thing about his Etudes disc on Hyperion is that the music is his own. The pieces are finely wrought and not in all cases as exhausting technically as those who know Hamelin only a little might suppose. The

sound is exquisite, and the identification of performer and composer, as one might expect, is complete.

One nominee in the Best Small Ensemble Performance category is a Naxos recording of music by the American composer Eric Whitacre, made by the Elora Festival Singers under Noel Edison.

Toronto diva Measha Brueggergosman is up for Best Classical Vocal Performance, for Wagner’s Wesendonck-Lieder with backup (on Deutsche Grammophon) by the Cleveland Orchestra under Franz Welser-Most.

Nor should we forget a Harmonia Mundi entry in Best Opera Recording by the Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester Berlin under a certain Kent Nagano. The opera, L’Amour de Loin, is by the Finnish composer Kaija Saariaho.

Nagano is not Canadian, of course, but he does show considerable interest in Canadian music. On March 22 (repeat March 24), he conducts the MSO through the world premiere of Vols et vertige du Gamache, by the McGill composition prof Denys Bouliane.

The soloist? Matt Haimovitz.

by Arthur Kaptainis

View article at Montreal Gazette

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