Indy Star: Duo explores music beyond classical standards

February 16, 2012

Shuffle.Play.Listen

More classical musicians have become restless about the standard repertoire than you might think. They don’t want the pieces they learned in school and are mentioned in the music-history texts to be all they interpret for audiences.

Matt Haimovitz and Christopher O’Riley specialize in joint explorations for cello and piano. With O’Riley providing arrangements of songs by bands with unclassical names like Radiohead, Arcade Fire and Cocteau Twins, the duo weaves into its programs a shrewd choice of short classical pieces emphasizing sources in folk song and dance.

Three of those were part of a program presented jointly by Ensemble Music Society and the Indianapolis Museum of Art Thursday night at the IMA’s Tobias Theater. Bohuslav Martinu’s Variations on a Slovak Folksong displayed the cellist’s golden tone through an engaging set of perspectives on the theme.

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Leos Janacek’s “Pohadka” (Fairy Tale) brought out a greater expressive range from both musicians, as its three movements delineated a story that could be heard as bright promise distorted, then dashed, then subjected to a sobering lesson learned. And a couple of excerpts from Stravinsky’s “Suite Italienne” found Haimovitz and O’Riley displaying thorough rapport in the wistful “Serenata” and the perpetual-motion “Tarantella.”

Each musician had a solo piece, Haimovitz opening with a reworking of a Bach air by John Corigliano, one of five major American composers born in 1938, on his 74th birthday. O’Riley occupied the spotlight after intermission, in a ravishing transcription he had put the finishing touches on of the Prelude and “Liebestod” from Wagner’s “Tristan and Isolde.”

But the major novelty in the program — apart from a lengthy encore, Astor Piazzolla’s “Le Grand Tango” — was a plethora of rock compositions, ending with a jazz-rock fusion masterpiece, John McLaughlin’s “Dance of Maya.” This work opens with impressive striding in both instruments; it gathers density of texture until it slides into a churning blues section. Then it opens out into a highly ornamented line in the cello that apes the exuberance of McLaughlin’s influential electric-guitar style.

This was wisely chosen, but of the sometimes hard-to-focus-on rock songs, the one that came alive for me in this concert was “Misery Is a Butterfly” by Blonde Redhead. Something about the way its muttering close harmonies at the start open up was particularly entrancing in Thursday’s performance.

If the duo has a flaw, it lies mainly in O’Riley’s playing like an accompanist sometimes when he could well have matched Haimovitz in assertiveness and panache.

by Jay Harvey

View this at Indy Star.

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