Washington Post: Pianist, cellist work in harmony to blend musical styles

March 16, 2012

Sarah Scott – Image of cellist Matt Haimovitz and pianist Christopher O’Riley, who are touring together in a program titled ‘Shuffle.Play.Listen.’

Increasing classical music’s appeal has been one of the genre’s biggest priorities in recent years. Some, such as pianist Christopher O’Riley, have broadened the repertory to include music not traditionally heard in concert halls, such as his transcriptions of songs by the band Radiohead. Others, such as cellist Matt Haimovitz, have advocated performing the existing canon — Bach’s solo cello suites, say — at venues not normally associated with classical music, including cafes, pubs and bars.

As it happens, Haimovitz and O’Riley share a manager, and last year they started performing together, merging shared and individual interests in a series of concerts, as well as on a joint recording titled “Shuffle. Play. Listen.” Their collaboration doesn’t have a special name — it’s just Matt and Chris jamming — but what they play and how they play it sets them apart from other duos. On Saturday, they will perform at George Mason University’s Center for the Arts in Fairfax, part of an extended national tour that began in September and continues indefinitely.

Their initial concert — in Billings, Mont. — was hastily arranged last spring. They had just three days to create and rehearse a program from scratch.

“We had never played together,” Haimovitz said, “but it felt like we had been playing together for years. It was pretty much instant rapport.”

They readily agreed on Stravinsky’s “Suite Italienne” and the Czech composer Bohuslav Martin’s “Variations on a Slavic Folksong.” But Astor Piazzolla’s “Le Grand Tango” was new to Haimovitz. (They now have the exuberant piece down pat, or so it sounded when they performed it as an encore in Cerritos, Calif., in January.)

The pair eventually discovered that they both enjoy a good meal and even have like-minded political leanings, but their bond early on sprang from a mutual enthusiasm for guitarist John McLaughlin and his Mahavishnu Orchestra. McLaughlin’s gentle “A Lotus on Irish Streams” and his haunting and virtuosic “The Dance of Maya” are among the showstoppers on the tour — and on the album. These pieces and Radiohead’s “Pyramid Song” were the first nonclassical works that O’Riley and Haimovitz incorporated into their joint sets.

“We were together for eight to 10 hours a day,” O’Riley said of their time in Billings. “It sounds like a slog, but it didn’t feel like one with Matt. I want to make his ideas work, and I try to support them, rather than come at them from an adversarial perspective. It was a great experience working up a concert together. It was Matt’s idea to include music by Arcade Fire. And last year’s Bernard Herrmann centenary made me think the suite from Hitchcock’s ‘Vertigo’ would be a nice addition.”

Haimovitz, who knew O’Riley only from records before their meeting, praises his partner’s collaborative instincts.

“The minute we started playing, it was obvious Chris is a beautiful chamber music player,” the cellist said. “You can hear all the experience he’s had. It was very much ‘no egos involved,’ just getting to the heart of the things, with a nice balance of feeling free and being able to articulate what we want.”

Their programs, fleshed out over months and always subject to slight modifications, are a melange of 20th- and 21st-century music (classical, jazz, rock) from different continents (Europe, North and South America). The unifying factor is the fluid playing and personal expressiveness that the duo brings to the material, much of it (especially the nonclassical material) arranged by O’Riley.

“I’ve felt from the beginning that Chris is willing to try anything, especially if you’ve got a valid reason for it,” Haimovitz said. “I’ve seen him change his mind, but often his instincts are sound. One of the things you realize in working in this kind of duo — or in any kind of chamber music, really — is that it involves trust and respect. We have a background together now, but our ears are open, and that keeps things fresh and interesting.”

Some music lovers may know O’Riley best as the host of NPR’s young-talent program “From the Top.” About a decade ago, he began making piano transcriptions of Radiohead songs to fill gaps on the show. That effort continues in his partnership with Haimovitz, and songs from the groups Arcade Fire, Cocteau Twins, A Perfect Circle and Blonde Redhead now join those by Radiohead.

Traditional classical music fans may not know these groups, let alone the specific songs, but even those familiar with them may be surprised when hearing them rendered by cello and piano.

“It sounds entirely different from what we do,” said Kazu Makino, the singer for Blonde Redhead, speaking about O’Riley’s reworking of the songs “Misery Is a Butterfly” and “Melody.” “I’m not even sure it’s a good representation of our work. It has become something else entirely. I don’t know if a person who would like this would like our version.”

O’Riley and Haimovitz are unlikely to be put off by such sentiments, for they strive to honor music in re-creative, not imitative, fashion.

“I think Matt and I are after similar things in terms of pushing the envelope regarding sound color,” O’Riley said.

Though both musicians have plenty of other activities to occupy them — Haimovitz teaches at McGill University in Montreal — this partnership appears to be taking root.

“It’s like a marriage,” Haimovitz said. “Things can be stronger and more powerful when two come together and spark something larger than what one can do alone. I think that’s critical. We bring out the best in each other.”

Christopher O’Riley/

Matt Haimovitz

“Shuffle. Play. Listen.”

8 p.m. Saturday at George Mason University’s Center for the Arts, Fairfax. $21-$42. cfa.gmu.edu.

By David Mermelstein

View article at Washington Post website.

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