Meet the cellist: From Bach to Hendrix Haimovitz took Bach to the bars, now he premieres Glass concert with CSO

March 29, 2012

Cellist Matt Haimovitz performs the world premiere of Philip Glass’ Cello Concerto No. 2, “Naqoyqatsi,” with the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra this weekend / Provided; Steph Mackinnon

As a cellist, Matt Haimovitz’s classical artistry is well known, ever since he made his debut in 1984 at age 13 with Zubin Mehta and the Israel Philharmonic. But in 2000, Haimovitz took what was then viewed as a bold new path. He brought the music of J.S. Bach to coffee houses, bars and clubs, redefining what it means to be a classical musician in the 21st century.

This weekend, Haimovitz will perform the world premiere of Philip Glass’ Cello Concerto No. 2, “Naqoyqatsi.” The performance will also be recorded live for a recording on Orange Mountain Music.

Haimovitz, 41, is a native of Israel who moved with his family to Palo Alto, Calif., when he was 5. Currently, he’s on a North American tour with pianist Christopher O’Riley, to promote their album, “Shuffle. Play. Listen,” which blurs classical and pop boundaries.

He spoke from Montreal where he is on the faculty at McGill University, and where he is married and the father of two daughters, ages 2 and 5.

Question: What inspired you to start playing Bach in nightclubs?

Answer: It started in 2000, when my 10-year contract with Deutsche Grammophon ran out. I met my wife, composer Luna Pearl Woolf and we wanted to embark on a project together (Oxingale Records), merging her composition with my performance background. There was also a transformation going on in the record industry and online.

We started with the Bach Cello Suites. In thinking about supporting the album (with tours), nobody was that interested in hearing a solo cello in 2,000 seat halls. So I thought, at the very least, we should have a release party. We played all six suites at the Iron Horse Music Hall, a legendary folk, jazz and indie rock venue in western Massachusetts. The response was so electric, it got me thinking whether this was a need in classical music.

Q: What have been some other projects?

A: I’d always wanted to do an American music album. Then, Sept. 11 happened, and it took on a different undertone and a sense or urgency. I wanted to celebrate our American culture. I made an arrangement of Jimi Hendrix’s “Star Spangled Banner.” That started a 50-state “Anthem” tour, celebrating music by American composers. It was just reaching out to people and letting them know if you’re a Hendrix fan, you’re going to like the raw power and visceral feel of these American composers.

Now I’m on tour with Christopher O’Riley, and we’re celebrating the 10 years of the iPod, and the different ways people listen to music.

Q: Yo-Yo Ma played the cello part in the soundtrack to “Naqoyqatsi,” part of the Godfrey Reggio film trilogy. How would you describe Philip Glass’ new Cello Concerto, based on that score?

A: It’s not a minimalist piece, it’s sort of neo-romantic. …“Naqoyqatsi” is Hopi “Life is war.” The film shows war images and images of violence, and strain … The music that Philip wrote is so hauntingly beautiful, that it makes the images palatable. Not only is the orchestration completely different, without all the synthesizers involved in the film, but also the form has taken a different shape.

Q: What do you hope the audience will experience?

A: In the film, there are images of Bin Laden, and Afghanistan armies with machine guns strapped over their shoulders. Even without seeing that, I think the music speaks to this age. It’s a piece where you can sing the melodies. It’s lyrical. And yet, it still sounds new and fresh and like Philip, with recurring motives.

by: Janelle Gelfand

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