March 8, 2016
You don’t usually expect to find a classical cellist at a rock club. But Matt Haimovitz isn’t your usual classical cellist. Now a resident of Montreal, where he teaches at McGill University, Haimovitz lived in the Valley for several years starting in the late 90s and taught at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. Before and during that time, he got an itch to push the usual practices of classical cellists into new territory.
Starting at age 13, he found early and widespread success, recording with the likes of Zubin Mehta and the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra, then landing an exclusive recording contract with Deutsche Grammaphon. But in the late 90s, he decided to expand his repertoire to include works of modern composers (including his wife, Luna Pearl Woolf), and he also took Bach’s Cello Suites on a tour of restaurants, bars, night clubs and other unusual venues. His career path since then has been idiosyncratic and exceptionally interesting, blending classical cred, exceptional virtuosity and a wild-haired sensibility.
This month, Haimovitz returns to the Valley with cello in hand in support of a new recording of the Bach Cello Suites, this one drawn from a manuscript by Bach’s wife, Anna Magdalena, and performed in part with baroque instruments.
Though he doesn’t always perform when he’s here, Haimovitz is still a frequent visitor to his old stomping grounds. “We get back often,” Haimovitz said in a recent interview. “Luna has family in Amherst. We spend two weeks in summer in the Valley, and we come down periodically. Hopefully, the whole family will join me on this trip.”
His March visit will offer listeners two days of chances to hear his latest take on Bach, and in keeping with his liking for alternative venues, some of those will be up close and personal, like his visit to the Esselon Café in Hadley.
The Bach Cello Suites are sublime, oft-visited pieces that create a remarkable sense of interweaving parts with just one player. They’ve been subject to interpretation by a very long list of virtuosic cellists since they were revived by cellist Pablo Casals in the early 20th century. They had previously gotten little attention, and were regarded more as studies than performance pieces. That was in part because of the lack of a manuscript signed by Bach himself, Haimovitz said.
“It turns out this one his wife, Anna Magdalena, made is the closest,” he said. “The handwriting actually looks similar to Bach’s.”
He explained that what the manuscript lacks in dynamic (relative volume) markings, it makes up for in what’s called “articulations,” which include things like bowing instructions and other performance techniques.
“People complain that her articulations are very difficult, with things like three notes per bow,” Haimovitz said. “But if you look closely, you start to see the language. In the end, it’s a really faithful copy.”
He explained that the Anna Magdalena manuscript has gone in and out of style, and even been discredited by some scholars. And in the meantime, many versions of the suites have been published. “We have dozens and dozens of different publications, with different cellists getting their hands on it, starting with Casals, each with their own fingerings and dynamics.”
For example, he said, in Casal’s recording, the cellist uses one draw of the bow across the strings to play all eight notes of the prelude. “But very clearly in Anna Magdalena’s manuscript, it’s three notes to a bow. Well, which three notes? As a detective, you have to make these decisions all the way through.”
Haimovitz pointed out a truth of Bach’s musical era that’s not so true in the contemporary classical world.
“Bach intended the performer to use imagination and good musical taste to find solutions and make sense of it all. He precedes the time when a composer like Beethoven was very controlling [of performers]. It was another age, when there was much more trust between composer and performer.”
Pairing old and new
For the current performances, Haimovitz has paired the Bach Suites with pieces he commissioned from contemporary composers, including his wife.
“I chose a variety,” he said. “I wanted a range of composers, and I wanted to broaden what Bach himself was doing in the Suites. He was synthesizing a lot of the [musical] vernacular around him, sounds from Spain, Italy, Germany. I think if he’d come into contact with Hawaiian chant, Latin salsa, or Caribbean rhythms, he would have incorporated those as well.”
That led Haimovitz to a disparate set of compositions. Philip Glass, he said, wrote “in a way” the most Bach-like overture, and others went further afield, like Du Yun, a Chinese-American composer who employs Serbian and Greek chant in her overture. The jazz-inflected sounds of Vijay Iyer appear in another overture, and that collaboration — “he wrote a brilliant piece,” Haimovitz said — was the product of a cold call he made to Iyer. The other overture composers include David Sanford, Roberto Sierra, and Luna Pearl Woolf.
Haimovitz is invoking the baroque age not only in his interpreting of the works, but also in the instrumentation. Another factor that leads to confusion in manuscripts is the difference in modern instruments versus those of the era when Bach composed. To more authentically replicate the sounds of that era, Haimovitz is employing more than one cello on his current tour.
“One is the cello I normally play. I just change my bow — I use a baroque bow for Bach and a modern one for contemporary pieces.”
Bach’s Sixth Cello Suite, he said, was likely intended for a five-string variant of the cello called a violoncello piccolo. Haimovitz employs just such an instrument for that suite, as well as the overture (by Woolf ) he’s paired with it.
“It’s got gut strings, and it’s tuned down a half step. It’s amazing to hear the sixth played with it,” Haimovitz said. “All the chords and the sarabande [section] cellists struggle through become much easier.”
The lower tuning and gut strings increase the instrument’s resonance, he explained, adding to a sense of the notes bleeding into each other.
‘A Moveable Feast’
Haimovitz has dubbed his tour “A Moveable Feast,” invoking Ernest Hemingway. And the feast does indeed move — the cellist will set up shop at smaller venues all along Route 9 over the course of two days, culminating in a UMass Bowker Auditorium performance Monday at 7:30 p.m.
“It comes from my interest in alternative venues and changing the context of where you present the music,” he said. “It’s a way to reach out and do a moveable part of the cycle in different locations, and then for that final part, we come back into the theater.”
Fans with sufficient time can easily follow the local mini-tour, which visits Smith College, the National Yiddish Book Center, and Esselon Café Sunday.
Haimovitz says his love of unusual (and usually smaller) venues for classical music arises in part from how people listen.
“People are listening differently,” he said. “Their expectations are different, and they’re also dealing with different proximity. It’s more intimate, and I’m more at one with the audience than on a stage.”
The search for new context has led Haimovitz to rock clubs fairly often, too. “I like the challenge of that. I don’t always know how it’s gonna work in the end.”
He says he’s comfortable in small and large venues after years of doing both. “In the end, a theater can be great, too — everybody’s so attentive.”
Haimovitz’ return to the Valley is also a return to where he began when he formed his own label, Oxingale, in Northampton, and released its first recording — a take on the Bach Cello Suites. Now, in conjunction with the label Pentatone, he’s offering what he says is “a new recording and a rebirth. [The Bach Cello Suites] are sort of a lifetime project. With this second go-round, it’s particularly significant and meaningful to come back to the Pioneer Valley to revisit this music and share some of these new discoveries.”
By James Heflin
Read at: Daily Hampshire Gazette