Musical Toronto: Tonight: Cellist Matt Haimovitz prefers to play it eclectic on stage and in the studio

November 5, 2013

Cellist Matt Haimovitz gets his kicks out of mixing it up, playing Arcade Fire at a pop-up concert one day, then restringing his instrument with gut strings to play period Beethoven the next. For tonight’s Toronto visit with the Ontario Philharmonic at Koerner Hall, he reaches into the heart of the repertoire with Ernest Bloch’s Schelomo.

Ten years ago, in his well-travelled early 30s, Haimovitz took up a teaching position at McGill University. At the time, the New York City resident was the bad boy of the classical cello world, performing Hendrix at CBGB, a now-defunct blues club in lower Manhattan’s Bowery district. He toured small and unusual venues preaching the gospel of accessibility and freshness.

The musician and his wife, composer Luna Pearl Woolf, had founded a genre-defying label, Oxingale Records, and were busily assembling a roster of fellow travellers keen to storm the battlements separating classical, jazz and pop.

It all came as a realization by the former child prodigy many years ago that he could, if he chose, spend the rest of his life playing five cello concertos. “I ran away from that as fast as I could,” he declares.

Fast forward to today, and we find Haimovitz running the same highway, preaching the art of engaging music — be it new or old — with his bow.

But distance from his teenage-star past now allows him to enjoy the warhorse pieces, as well. Pieces like the Bloch Hebraic Rhapsody we will hear tonight.

“Now, when I do go back to this repertoire that I grew up with, I hear it with new ears. I’m also teaching it and thinking about it in different ways,” says Haimovitz. The result is meant to sound as fresh as if we were all hearing it for the first time.

In many ways, the visible patterns and habits of the classical music world haven’t changed that much since Haimovitz rebelled in early adulthood. People are still trying to break down barriers and trying to think of fresh ways of communicating their music. But what may have shifted the most is how the youngest musicians are taught.

Haimovitz compares his studio at McGill with that of Leonard Rose, his teacher in the 1980s.

“I can’t imagine in this day and age to have a studio like we had with Leonard Rose,” says Haimovitz of a place where even 20th century art music was banned. “That age is just over. Just to survive these days, you have to be open to more.”

And, unlike the 1980s, the cellist feels free to experiment with historically-informed performance practices.

As a teenager, he would have been laughed out of music school for tying gut strings to his cello, and for using a shorter bow. Now, he is a convert to the period sound.

“Sometimes it surprises me what comes up,” says Haimovitz of his latest epiphany. It all started when a couple of McGill colleagues invited him to try Beethoven, period-style, with accompaniment by a fortepiano (the modern piano’s ancestor). “It was such a revelation,” he admits.

So much so that Haimovitz and his regular piano partner Christopher O’Riley have gone through the whole Beethoven Cello Sonata cycle on period instruments. “Now we’re spending a lot of time working this up, and going into the recording studio,” he says. “I never expected to get on that wavelength.”

But the Arcade Fire songs will stay on the repertoire list, as well.

This eclecticism and openness to new ideas is a hallmark of teaching, not just performing, for Haimovitz. “And I think I’ve been learning as much from my students as they are learning from me,” he says.

“There’s a responsibility with every generation to keep the music alive,” states Haimovitz.

This is his contribution.

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The Ontario Philhamronic and its music director Marco Parisotto also perform Gustav Mahler’s Symphony No. 1 tonight. You’ll find all the concert details here.

I’ve heard that Haimovitz was so impressed with the conductor that he asked to play with the orchestra in the Mahler. This may be the first time the cellist has played in a professional orchestra rather than being the featured soloist.

By: John Terauds

Read at: Musical Toronto

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