The Morning Call: Matt Haimovitz joins Allentown Symphony for Elgar Cello Concerto

October 29, 2014

An award-winning cellist joins an award-winning orchestra for an award-worthy program of music by Beethoven, Elgar and Sierra this weekend at Miller Symphony Hall.

Matt Haimovitz will team up with the Allentown Symphony Orchestra in Elgar’s celebrated Concerto for Cello, on a program that also features Beethoven’s Symphony No. 5 and the Pennsylvania premiere of Roberto Sierra’s “Montuno.”

Haimovitz, who won a Grammy Award for Best Classical Producer and a Grammy nomination for Best Classical Crossover Album for his 2011 release “Meeting of the Spirits,” will be in good company when he takes the stage at Symphony Hall. The orchestra, under the baton of music director Diane Wittry, is the 2014 winner of the American Prize in Orchestral Performance in the professional orchestra division.
The American Prize, founded in 2009, is a series of nonprofit competitions designed to recognize and reward performing artists, ensembles and composers in the United States. Based on submitted recordings, it is awarded annually in many areas of the performing arts. Winners receive cash prizes, professional adjudication and regional, national and international recognition.

Haimovitz, 43, has received a fair share of recognition himself. Praised for the intensity of his playing by Newsweek and his technical panache by The Boston Globe, he is a champion of new music and brings familiar repertoire to new audiences in unexpected places.

The Israeli-born cellist, who divides his home between Montreal and New York, has appeared with some of the most revered orchestras of the world, including the Berlin Philharmonic, the New York Philharmonic and the Boston Symphony.

Haimovitz studied at the Collegiate School in New York and at Juilliard in the final class of Leonard Rose. He continued his cello studies with Ronald Leonard and Yo-Yo Ma, and in 1996 received a B.A. with highest honors from Harvard University.

Matt Haimovitz [credit: Amber Davis]

Matt Haimovitz [credit: Amber Davis]

Like Ma, Haimovitz challenges the conventional definition of a concert cellist. He has played Bach’s solo cello suites in beer halls and biker bars, and has been known to saw through a Led Zeppelin tune from time to time with his eight-cello band, Uccello. It was with Uccello that he made “Meeting of the Spirits.” That disc features nine jazz milestones, including works by Billy Strayhorn, Miles Davis and George Gershwin, in arrangements by Pittsburgh composer David Sanford.
But it will be Elgar’s cello concerto, not Miles Davis’ “Half Nelson,” that Haimovitz will be performing at Symphony Hall. Completed in 1919, it was Elgar’s last major work for orchestra, and one dominated by a sense of anguish. Not only was Elgar suffering from illness, but he also was deeply depressed by the destruction he witnessed in World War I. To give a voice to his pain, he chose the cello for its rich-toned yet brooding personality and its searing, dark timbre.

After the dark and gloomy opening of the first movement, the clarinets introduce a fleeting theme of idyllic release, treated in the graceful manner of a siciliana. The second movement is prefaced by a pizzicato version of the cello’s opening recitative. Haimovitz’s treatment here should be interesting to see — not too long ago, he attacked a pizzicato in David Sanford’s “22 Part I” with such enthusiasm he pulled a string right out of the bridge.

A meditative adagio follows, and by the end of the piece the recitative of the first movement is heard again, with tension dramatically building as the cello sings through all but a single measure.

In contrast to the elegiac nature of Elgar’s cello concerto is Roberto Sierra’s “Montuno” (From the Mountains). Sierra, a native of Puerto Rico, came to prominence in 1987, when his first major orchestral composition, “Jubilo,” was performed at Carnegie Hall by the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra. In 2008, his Viola Concerto was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in Music Composition.

A “montuno” is an instrumental dance form originating in the hilly regions of eastern Cuba that fuses Spanish guitar and vocal music with the vibrant rhythms of Afro-Cuban percussion. Sierra, who rooted his work in the form’s early traditions, writes that his orchestral “Montuno” is based on the “clave,” a traditional Latin rhythmic pattern and its corollary two-measure chord sequence. The work builds into a series of variations as more instrumental voices are added before coming to an exhilarating close.

Not much more can be said about Beethoven’s iconic fifth symphony, with the exception of pointing out the extreme difficulty in getting that first “da-da-da-DUM” off to a good start. Those four notes — the single most forceful, electrifying and recognizable opening to a symphony — actually are preceded by a rest, and getting it right takes lots of work.

That four-note rhythmic idea permeates the rest of the symphony as well, followed by the elaborate variations of the slow movement. In the famous scherzo, Beethoven quotes and transforms the opening of the final movement of Mozart’s Symphony No. 40. The finale closes in a blaze of C-major glory, with trombones, piccolo and contrabassoon, all held in reserve by Beethoven until this climactic movement.

•Allentown Symphony Orchestra with cellist Matt Haimovitz, 8 p.m. Nov. 1, 3 p.m. Nov. 2, Miller Symphony Hall, 23 N. Sixth St., Allentown. Tickets: $19-$52; $10 students. 610-432-6715, http://www.millersymphonyhall.org. Parking available in the transportation deck at Sixth and Linden streets.

Steve Siegel

Read at: The Morning Call

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