November 12, 2015
Wearing overalls and a short-sleeved blue shirt on the cover of his recent recording of Bach’s Cello Suites, with cherubic hair and a wispy beard, the innovative Matt Haimovitz looks more like your typical alt-rock musician than your stereotypical stuffed-shirt classical type. Which is precisely the point. After all, this is a fellow who plays rock clubs as well as the world’s grandest stages.
According to the New Yorker, the “maverick … made his name by playing the complete Bach Solo Suites at CBGB before the ‘classical in clubs’ trend became a gimmick.” (It should be added that any way to encourage younger generations raised on rock and hip hop to listen to classical music is hardly a gimmick.)
The 44-year-old Israeli-born American came to Montreal in 2004, taking up residence at McGill’s vaunted school of music. Indeed, he lives in the heart of the student ghetto. In his front room is a scuffed baroque cello built in Venice in 1710 by the legendary Matteo Goffriller, who also made the cello Pablo Casals played — the very one Haimovitz adopted, on loan, in the late 1980s.
He sat me between that and the cello piccolo leaning against a wall, while he ambled to the kitchen to select a “special” imported beer I’d never heard of before. Live and learn: Haimovitz’s teaching is contagious.
The Cello Suites According to Anna Magdalena is the third multi-CD package released by Haimovitz this year. The others are the acclaimed Beethoven, Period (sonatas for pianoforte and cello with Christopher O’Riley) and Orbit (solo music composed after 1945).
Apart from his partner in life, composer Luna Pearl Woolf, and his two young daughters, his most intimate relationship is with the cello. I asked him how he nurtured this relationship.
“Well, you try to be as faithful as you can,” he said, laughing. “Most importantly, I never let other people handle it, especially airline people. Travelling can be hell. It’s amazing how difficult it is, even if you buy an extra seat, with certain airlines.
“You treat it very well and it gets looked over once a year. I’m not really obsessive about it. Some people get it checked up every two weeks.
“You have to be very aware of weather conditions.” He rooted out a palm-sized gadget that tells him the room’s humidity rating. “Weather is really the key, because in the winter it can get very dry inside, so I always have a humidity reader here to make sure it’s over 30 per cent. Otherwise it’ll crack.
“My philosophy is that it’s survived 300 years, and if you take good care of it I’m not going to be afraid to play Jimi Hendrix on it.”
Does he feel a sense of continuity, legacy, heritage, that after he’s gone someone else will be playing it?
“Oh yeah, definitely. I’m just a steward with this instrument. Think about Venice in 1710: one of the first composers to come to mind is Vivaldi, who taught at a girls’ school. He very likely commissioned this cello for one of his girls. That’s my connection to the history. This instrument was in Venice when Vivaldi was first writing his cello concerto.”
The story of the Cello Suites is almost too fantastical to be true. The original manuscript was lost in the dustbin of history. However, Bach’s second wife, Anna Magdalena, had copied the original in handwriting uncannily similar to her husband’s. In 1890, 13-year-old Casals was rummaging through a second-hand music store in his native Barcelona, where “whether by divine design or sheer luck,” Haimovitz writes, he found these masterpieces “buried at the bottom of a bin, at a time when they had all but disappeared from the cello canon.” Do you believe in miracles?
Haimovitz himself has benefited from a similar serendipity.
“I was brought up in a very traditional way. My teacher Leonard Rose had an ideal conception of what a cello should sound like. I still have that, but for me it became evident beyond the first year of college that I wanted to be able to navigate anything.
“Coming from this central European household, classical was everything. It was a no-no to listen to the latest Michael Jackson tune. When I heard it, I sort of tuned it out. Everything revolved around the classics and going to the symphony and opera and solo recitals and practising four, five hours a day.
“Then in my first year in college at Princeton, I ran into Milton Babbitt, a very provocative composer, and here was this young kid who hadn’t played a note from the 20th century. He immediately started taunting me into a very interesting conversation. Here I am, this 17-year-old brat, and I said to him: ‘I’m sorry, but you’ve got Beethoven and Brahms — how could you possibly think you could compete with that? It’s been done.’ Well, he just laid into me.
“Then along came another composer, Steven Mackey, from a more rock ‘n’ roll background. He played electric guitar. He asked me if I had ever improvised. ‘No,’ I answered, ‘I’d have nowhere to start. I’d just be regurgitating whatever I knew already.’ He replied that I didn’t have to ‘know’ how to improvise — you just gotta do it. So he got me in a room with his electric guitar and my cello, and we just started jamming.
“That entire year, I didn’t go to class — I just improvised. It was the first time I had done anything like that. He started playing me LPs of Jimi Hendrix, John Coltrane, Miles Davis. One after another, and it all came out of nowhere for me. It was a whole new thing. When I heard the Hendrix Star-Spangled Banner, I immediately went, ‘I gotta play that!’ “
As for the Cello Suites, Haimovitz writes in his fascinating liner notes that after a decade with them he was “intimidated by them, overwhelmed and confused by the number of different approaches to their interpretation. I owned dozens of published editions. Which one should I rely on to base my bowings and fingerings? Where does one begin to look for the hints as to tempi, dynamics, ornamentation? … I was lost in the labyrinth of decisions and possibilities. My instincts were no longer enough.” No spoiler alert here; get the CD and read the notes.
On Friday and Saturday, Haimovitz turns his attention to Brahms’s Double Concerto for Violin, Cello and Orchestra in A minor, Op. 102, with the McGill Symphony Orchestra. The program then moves to Toronto — a first for McGill.
AT A GLANCE
Matt Haimovitz plays Brahms’s Double Concerto for Violin, Cello and Orchestra in A minor, Op. 102, with the McGill Symphony Orchestra and violinist Axel Strauss, Friday, Nov. 13 and Saturday, Nov. 14 at 7:30 p.m. at Pollack Hall, 555 Sherbrooke St. W. Tickets cost $12 to $18 at the box office, by calling 514-398-4547 or at bit.ly/1N0eMSJ.
Read at: Montreal Gazette