September 25, 2011
One of the works in the current repertoire of pianist Christopher O’Riley and cellist Matt Haimovitz is lovely and unsettling at the same time. A droning, melancholic chordal foundation sets up a top melody that features wide interval leaps. The compelling, yearning quality of the composition has a strong emotional appeal, while the interior logic of it engages the intellect.
It’s not Beethoven. Nor Shostakovich. It’s “Misery Is a Butterfly,” written by the avant-rock band Blonde Redhead.
O’Riley and Haimovitz included an arrangement of the piece on their new album, “Shuffle.Play.Listen,” and it’s also on the program for their concert Friday at the University of Notre Dame’s DeBartolo Center for the Performing Arts.
The album and the concert tour find the musicians juxtaposing material by rock artists such as Arcade Fire and Cocteau Twins with pieces from composers such as Igor Stravinsky and Bohuslav Martinu.
In the past few decades, ideas of this nature have not taken hold. Usually, rock fans felt the classical environment a bit stuffy, and classical music fans dismissed rock interpretations as gimmicks or sellout attempts.
” ‘Misery Is a Butterfly’ has undergone a really splendid evolution through the recording and subsequent performances. It’s a really strong piece,” O’Riley says by telephone prior to a concert in Ogden, Utah.
Some listeners won’t know anything about the original Blonde Redhead song, but that shouldn’t be a problem. Naturally, O’Riley and Haimovitz omit the lyrics, but the meaning is still clear enough. Consider the example of another piece in the set, Martinu’s “Variations on a Slovak Folksong.” Hardly anyone knows the words to the old tune — translated as “If I Had Known” — that inspired Martinu, yet still the work has become part of the standard repertoire.
Another interesting selection for the duo is Stravinsky’s “Suite Italienne,” in which the Russian Modernist delves into the style of early 18th-century Italian composer Giovanni Battista Pergolesi. It fits perfectly on “Shuffle.Play.Listen” because it’s an example of musical time travel, jumping around from era to era and finding new connections.
“It’s music refracted through different views,” O’Riley says. “Martinu is a modern composer making something new from that old Slavic theme. With the Stravinsky, the space-time continuum is being messed around with compositionally as well.”
In several instances, the duo explores contemporary material by performing it in antique styles. The new tonal colors shed a different light on the composition. O’Riley notes that Haimovitz’s cello technique on another Blonde Redhead track, “Melody,” is from “the Purcell framework of Baroque cello playing.”
“Shuffle.Play.Listen” also includes arrangements of jazz music by John McLaughlin and film soundtrack music by Bernard Herrmann. The album takes its title from this sense of near-randomness, as if a modern listener pressed “shuffle” on an iPod and these different genres started coming out track by track.
The “shuffle” theme occurs again in the concert program via the presentation of Anton Webern’s three pieces for cello and piano, Opus 11. Rather than perform them consecutively, the duo intersperses them throughout the program.
“They serve as palate-cleansers, sorbet courses,” O’Riley says.
Both of the musicians have the usual prestigious classical music credentials, but both have also previously engaged in interpretations of rock music. O’Riley has the higher public profile of the two, because of his work as host of “From the Top,” which airs in both radio and television formats on NPR and PBS.
O’Riley wrote the arrangements of the rock songs for piano and cello and had to solve intriguing problems such as how to transcribe electric guitar overtones and feedback for a chamber-music configuration. It was much easier for him to decide where to relegate the vocal melody of rock songs.
“We’re back with the old adage that the cello is the closest musical instrument to the human voice,” he says.
In the passages where Haimovitz most closely emulates singers, he executes amazing feats of acrobatic virtuosity — particularly if the vocal line is for higher than a tenor.
Taking the role of a violin section on Herrmann’s “Vertigo” may be the most punishing job of all for the cellist.
“Anything I asked him to do, he found a way to do,” O’Riley says. “For the Bernard Herrmann suite, well, it could be an etude book — a book of transcendental etudes for the cello. Matt’s really extended the boundaries of the instrument.”
In concert Christopher O’Riley and Matt Haimovitz perform at 7 p.m. Friday at the University of Notre Dame’s DeBartolo Center for the Performing Arts. Tickets are $30-$15. For more information, call 574-631-2800 or visit the website performingarts.nd.edu.
by Jack Walton
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