August 9, 2012
Cellist Matt Haimovitz made his stage debut at 13 as a soloist with Zubin Mehta and the Israel Philharmonic. At 17, he made his first recording with James Levine and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra.
But Haimovitz, now 41, went through what he calls a renaissance after college, expanding the scope of his work to include more contemporary classical composers while taking the classical canon from the concert hall to venues as unorthodox as New York punk club CBGB.
That’s where, in 2002, against the drumbeat for war with Iraq, Haimovitz premiered his version of “The Star-Spangled Banner” as Jimi Hendrix performed it at Woodstock.
We spoke with Haimovitz about “Beyond Bach,” his upcoming concert at Phoenix’s Musical Instrument Museum, as well as the Hendrix performance and the life of a former child prodigy.
Question: Your performance here is called “Beyond Bach.” Could you talk about the meaning of that title?
Answer: For a solo cellist, everything sort of harks back to the Bach cello suites. And there’s a lot of new repertoire, partly because of the great cellists who came upon the scene and partly because the technique of the instrument has inspired a lot of composers. So it’s really taken off over the last century. But there’s this island of these six Bach suites that’s sort of the anchor of the repertoire, the bible of the repertoire. So I start with a Bach suite and go off in different directions. It allows me flexibility to evolve the program as it goes. As a contemporary composer, you can’t help either relating to or rebelling against the Bach cello suites.
Q: Do you relate to or rebel against?
A: I pretty much embrace them fully (laughing). I started what I think of as a renaissance to my career when I started playing Bach cello suites in alternative spaces, taking them out of the concert hall and bringing them to rock-and-roll clubs, coffeehouses, jazz clubs. And from there, I started presenting some of the more contemporary composers that I’ve been really interested in since I was 18, 19 years old.
Q: What attracted you to the exploration of more contemporary music?
A: I was brought up in a pretty traditional classical way. My principal teacher, Leonard Rose, never encouraged us to play any contemporary music. And when I went off to college, I started jamming with a composer at Princeton, Steve Mackey. Then, I was making a solo recording with Deutsche Grammophon and published right in that week that I was recording was Gy�rgy Ligeti’s solo sonato, which had never been recorded. I had a chance to work with Ligeti, one of the pre-eminent composers of the 20th century, who’s since passed away. And from there, I realized that although I thought I had good instincts for a lot of this tradition, having the composer there to answer questions and criticize what you’re doing, to talk to you about the initial impetus and inspiration for the piece, it really brought me closer to the compositional process. So I started seeking it out, commissioning works and playing as much new music as possible to get to know these composers and then applying that sense of compositional process to Bach and Beethoven and some of the established canonic figures.
Q: What was the reaction to your version of Hendrix’s take on “The Star Spangled Banner”?
A: The first time I did that was at CBGB. I had just played three Bach suites, and most of the people in the room were there to hear me and experience that, but there were a couple of punk bands that were a little pissed off and wanted to get me off the stage (laughing). They wanted the room to themselves. So after playing the Bach suites, I played the premiere of David Sanford’s “Seventh Avenue Kaddish,” which was a response to Sept. 11. This was back in the fall of 2002. And then I played my arrangement of the Hendrix. That response was awesome. It was the perfect space for it. I had never been particularly activist or political. And yet, what was going on in the world — the Bush administration talking about going to war with Iraq, kind of steamrolling their way, and this sense of almost Orwellian claustrophobia, that if you spoke your opinion other than the accepted one, then you were deemed unpatriotic — was starting to really infringe on freedom of expression. And for me, the great statement that Hendrix made during the Vietnam War was a direct parallel to what was going on at that time. So I went off and did that and never looked back. I wasn’t invited to play it at the Republican National Convention (laughing); they went with Clint Eastwood instead.
Q: You were 7 when you started studying cello. What attracted you to the instrument?
A: I grew up with a lot of piano in the home. My mother was a pianist. And the cello had this mystery to me. When I heard it in concert, it was so different from the piano that I was fascinated by it and wanted to try to re-create that sound.
Q: How did it feel to work with orchestras at such a young age?
A: I was immersed already at that time in what I was doing. So the idea that people whose LPs I was collecting would invite me to play with their orchestra was very exciting. And yet, it happened while I was so young that I didn’t really question it. I was too young to realize how unusual it was. Now, looking back, I feel incredibly fortunate to have had those experiences that shaped who I am. Even today, I’m in awe. A few years ago, when John McLaughlin, the legendary guitarist who was in Miles Davis’ band, joined the cello band, you sort of pinch yourself.
Q: Having been viewed as a prodigy, did you find it difficult to move beyond that distinction as you were maturing as an artist?
A: I didn’t personally, but it was definitely an issue in terms of marketing and dealing with promoters — having known me as a little kid and then all of a sudden, I’m trying to be taken seriously as a mature artist. Yeah, there’s always a transition. With anybody who starts at that age, that’s the danger. But partly because I didn’t really care what other people thought, I just followed my own path. When one thing would lead to the next, I’d just go with it. And I’ve ended up in a place that I would never have expected. If you had asked me 20, 25 years ago, ‘Where will you be in 20 years?” I would never have told you that I would be doing the kind of career that I have now. But I thought it was important to go to college and take a step back from public performance to some degree, to experiment and work with composers and improvise. And I’ve just gone with that ever since, just followed what interests me and keeps me motivated.
By: Ed Masley
Reach the reporter at firstname.lastname@example.org or 602-444-4495. Twitter.com/EdMasley.