San Francisco Chronicle: Haimovitz, O’Riley mash up classical, rock

January 09, 2012

What’s the difference between the music of Janácek and that of the Canadian indie-rock band Arcade Fire? To hear Matt Haimovitz and Christopher O’Riley tell it, not that much.

The newly minted cello-piano duo made their case at Yoshi’s San Francisco on Thursday night, in a soulful and diverse set drawn from their recent two-CD set, “Shuffle.Play.Listen.” And as with any such argument, the point was made most effectively by the brilliance and virtuosic tenderness of their playing.

On one hand there were chamber works from the 20th century classical tradition by Janácek, Stravinsky, Martinu and even Webern. And right there with them were O’Riley’s inventive arrangements of songs by Radiohead, Blonde Redhead, Arcade Fire and John McLaughlin.

And sure, you could tell the difference; the point was that you didn’t want to, because it all sounded evocative and seductive. As advocates for an inclusive approach to music, Haimovitz and O’Riley are hard to top.

Like merchants in a marketplace (or, let’s say, representatives of a tech startup making their pitch) the two wasted no time setting out their wares. At 8 o’clock on the dot, Haimovitz launched into the Prelude from Bach’s First Suite for Unaccompanied Cello, which gave way to the Prelude from Bernard Herrmann’s “Vertigo” Suite and “Pyramid Song” by Radiohead.

It was a terrific combination – three pieces treating harmony in comparable but divergent ways, from Bach’s strong-limbed counterpoint to Herrmann’s more jittery voicing to the heavy-footed tolling of piano chords in “Pyramid Song.” The duo’s eloquent performances drew the connections and the contrasts with appealing clarity.Shuffle.Play.Listen

The whole evening was full of similar juxtapositions, lending support to the iPod aesthetic pointed to by the CD’s title (although, as Haimovitz rightly pointed out, “our algorithm is not as random” as a true iPod shuffle). To switch from Stravinsky to Radiohead was a bit of a jolt, but not enough to obscure the linkages that were there as well.

None of this would have mattered much, of course, if the level of execution had not been so high throughout. Haimovitz’s cello playing was full of emotional urgency and richness of tone, and O’Riley, in spite of his possibly excessive fondness for the pedal, brought rhythmic force and solidity to the piano parts.

The ripe figurations of Radiohead’s “Arpeggi” led nicely into a gorgeous account of Martinu’s “Variations on a Slovak Folksong.” Perhaps the most striking part of the show was the duo’s superb performance – scattered throughout the evening on the installment plan – of Webern’s compact and crystalline Three Pieces for Cello and Piano, Op. 11.

Still, if Haimovitz and O’Riley are preaching a righteous gospel, their followers may have some catching up to do. It took only a few minutes to realize that the applause greeting the announcement of each selection came from two distinct bands of audience members. If the performers can embrace it all, why not the listeners as well?

E-mail Joshua Kosman at jkosman@sfchronicle.com.

This article appeared on page E – 3 of the San Francisco Chronicle

by Joshua Kosman

View at San Francisco Chronicle

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