The Jewish Week: Hearing A Jewish Downbeat

February 19, 2014

Cellist Matt Haimovitz’s Shoah-tinged ‘Akoka.’

When he was 16, Israeli-born cellist Matt Haimovitz was invited to play Richard Strauss’ “Don Quixote” with the Berlin Philharmonic under the direction of Herbert von Karajan. Berlin? Strauss, a darling of the Nazi regime? Von Karajan, who was a member of the Nazi party? But a career breakthrough of immense proportions.

He was pondering the offer when his grandfather extended another invitation.

“My grandfather took me to Yad Vashem,” he recalled in a telephone interview last week. “The experience was so powerful that I turned them down. It was a very difficult decision. It was a pinnacle on a professional level, but I couldn’t do that to my grandparents.”

Haimovitz’s career survived. He made the difficult transition from prodigy to adult professional by gradually moving away from the standard cello repertoire and expanding his horizons to take in new music and the challenges of experimentation. And he has paid back his debt to his grandparents handsomely with his new album, “Akoka,” a stunning combination of the old and the new that evokes the Shoah in an elegant way.

Akoka: Reframing Olivier Messiaen's Quartet for the End of Time

The centerpiece of the CD is a shatteringly beautiful performance of Olivier Messiaen’s “Quartet for the End of Time,” a deeply spiritual piece of music written while Messiaen was a prisoner in a German POW camp. The clarinetist for whom he wrote the piece was a fellow prisoner, an Algerian Jew named Henri Akoka. When a sympathetic camp guard arranged for Messiaen and the other musicians to be sent back to France, Akoka’s Jewish features led to his being kept in the POW camp. He eventually escaped, jumping from a train with his clarinet under his arm.

Haimovitz has teamed with David Krakauer and Socalled to create two pieces in response to the Messiaen, a composition by Krakauer bearing Akoka’s name, and a mash-up by Socalled that combines the Messiaen with the beat-maker’s usual witty collection of sound bites, musical samples and frisky beats. The result is compelling listening, particularly when you know the story behind the compositions.

“It’s always powerful to play the Messiaen,” Haimovitz said. “To think of the circumstances, that makes it an even more spiritual experience. It’s an extraordinary statement that under those conditions you could come up with something so beautiful and transcendent. It lifts the spirit.”

By: George Robinson
Read at: The Jewish Week

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