Kronos Quartet, Matt Haimovitz concerts showcase new sound of classical

March 12, 2011

Winds of change are blowing through the world of classical music — and the unsettled weather will make for some wild times at two New Orleans concerts this coming week.

On Sunday, one of the world’s most acclaimed classical cellists will lead his string octet, Uccello, at Snug Harbor Jazz Bistro — a tour stop on the way to South by Southwest, the everything-but-classical music conference in Austin, Texas. The cellist, Matt Haimovitz, will play compositions by Miles Davis, Ornette Coleman and other jazz greats in arrangements from his Grammy Award-nominated 2010 recording, “Meeting of the Spirits.”

On Wednesday, the Kronos Quartet will come to Tulane University, bringing a light show, electronics, a portfolio of newly commissioned music and fans who happily shout their approval when Icelandic rock bands are mentioned. Oh, yes, these San Francisco bad boys will be playing on two violins, a viola, and a cello — the same perfect combination of strings that Franz Joseph Haydn discovered before the American Revolution.

“Haydn started a great tradition and we want to add to it, ” said David Harrington, the violinist who founded Kronos in 1973. “So far, we have commissioned more than 700 new pieces and built long-term relationships with musicians and composers all over the world and across the whole spectrum of music.”

The Tulane program includes the syncopated, dance-driven works of Americans such as Terry Riley and Michael Gordon; a song by performance artist Laurie Anderson; a 2009 quartet by Missy Mazzoli, which is inspired by the form of the Brooklyn Bridge; and compositions that draw on the folk traditions of the Balkans (Aleksandra Vrebalov) and Iran (Sahba Aminkiia) and which also incorporate electronic samples of vernacular sounds.

“I want our concerts to celebrate the whole mosaic of music and to remind people that music can redirect your life, ” Harrington said. “Part of the problem today is that music is not taken especially seriously. We call it ‘playing’ music — and playing isn’t valued in our society. But when I look at my 2-year-old grandson, I see the value of play and the imagination. It’s the same for musicians and listeners — just turn the kaleidoscope and see how life looks to you.”

For Haimovitz, the Kronos Quartet has long been an inspiration — and not just for the group’s music making.

“Kronos made the string quartet feel hip, ” Haimovitz said. “From the start, they understood the importance of visual elements in a concert. It doesn’t work to isolate a single sense and give it priority. Almost no one can just listen with eyes closed for 70 minutes, savoring the harmonic evolution of some Haydn quartets. What we do as musicians is extremely abstract — and so we have to help listeners translate those abstractions into visual, sensual, even spiritual terms.”

Haimovitz has polished his own brand of theater in the decade since he began to play classical works and improvisations at venues ranging from Mickey Gilley’s Texas honky-tonk to the legendary Manhattan punk club CBGB.

“Nobody expects to see a guy step on stage with a cello at a country music club. There’s a lot of drama in that. And it’s even better when I come on stage with my cello octet, Uccello. People listen differently when you upset their expectations. For our current tour, I bought a $50 cello that we use as a drum. And our arrangements make us sound like everything from a big band to a choir.”

Haimovitz, 40, continues to perform in all kinds of settings, including a world premiere with the Montreal Symphony Orchestra later this month. His chamber music collaborators range from top classical players such as pianists Christopher O’Riley and Gilbert Kalish to the famed jazz guitarist John McLaughlin.

“I grew up in this Central European household where the only music was classical, but in college I started to explore — Hendrix, Coltrane, Miles Davis — and that was the beginning of my fascination with improvisation, ” Haimovitz said. “At first it made me queasy to go onstage without a score, but after 10 years of playing in clubs, I’ve learned to embrace my own vulnerability and to relish a different connection with the audience. They like to see me get out of tough spots.”

Improvising has also affected Haimovitz’s approach to the classical repertoire, where his favorites include Bach, Ligeti, Bartok and such contemporary composers as David Sanford, whose deft, idiomatic arrangements are a highlight of the new “Meeting of the Spirits” CD.

Meeting of the Spirits

“My ears are wide open now, ” Haimovitz said. “And when I hear my students take up the challenge, I think we’re at the start of a renaissance for classical music. We’re not hiding in the listening room at the back of Tower Records anymore. And the best players know that refined technique can’t come at the expense of emotional connections. Audiences want musicians to take risks. They’re bored by impersonal museum pieces.”

The bond between musicians and audiences is also on the mind of Harrington and his Kronos colleagues.

“You go to a concert to see your friends and share an experience with others. The best audiences draw better playing from musicians and the listeners become like another player on stage, ” Harrington said. “When we have that experience together, perfection isn’t the point.”

To drive home his argument, Harrington mentioned the historic, mid-20th century Bach recordings made by cellist Pablo Casals. The violinist has been revisiting them in preparation for an upcoming concert.

“No one plays Bach like that anymore. Today’s perfectionists wouldn’t allow it, ” Harrington said. “But what you get from those old recordings is the moral authority in Casals’ playing. Something was accomplished in the daily performing of those works. They were under his hands for decades, and like a woodworker, he has molded them — and they have molded him. Casals tells a story. Casals makes a poem. That’s what we’re all after when we make music.”

Chris Waddington can be reached at or 504.826.3448. Comment and read more at

By Chris Waddington,

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