Arizona Republic: Cellist Matt Haimovitz updates Bach for 21st century

January 11, 2017

He asked contemporary composers to add “overtures” to Bach’s famed cello suites.

Cellist Matt Haimovitz earned a reputation as a bit of a maverick in the classical world, playing concert tours in nightclubs and recording music by the likes of jazzman John McLaughlin and even Scottish rockers the Cocteau Twins. But none of that showed quite as much chutzpah as his latest project, commissioning contemporary composers to riff on Bach’s famed cello suites.

Haimovitz will perform these modern “overtures” alongside the original Baroque works on Sunday, Jan. 15, at the Musical Instrument Museum.

“The first phone call was to Philip Glass,” Haimovitz says. “He also basically advised me. He said, ‘When you talk to other composers, just make sure everybody’s being paid the same rate. Then you can afford me.’ So that was good advice.”

Haimovitz was born in Israel and grew up in the States and began his career as a soloist with major symphonies as a teenager. But his career took a left turn when he attended his first year of college at Princeton.

“I was very sheltered,” he says. “Nobody sheltered me, but I was so immersed in the classical tradition that I shut out all pop culture at that age. A professor that I had (guitarist Steven Mackie) who came from a more rock-and-roll background put on some LPs for me of Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Miles Davis, John Coltrane. All of that stuff was completely new to me, and I was blown away.

“Once that world was opened up to me, it was just a Pandora’s Box. I then became voracious about wanting to know more about these other musics. At the same moment, I started working with living composers. I hadn’t played a note from the 20th century, really. And I started improvising for the first time. My ears became attuned in a different way. My sense of time started to develop in a different way. Still today, I consider myself a classical cellist, but because I’ve been opened up to these other genres and I’ve had experiences in jazz and bluegrass and rock-and-roll, I feel like all of that now informs what I do with classical.”

His line-blurring career led some writers to assign Haimovitz to the so-called “alt-classical” movement, although he says the entire point is to get beyond labels and categories. And that eclectic aesthetic is reflected in the Bach overtures, which he recorded and released on the Pentatone label a year ago.

“Bach was taking dance forms and vernaculars from all around him, whatever he could get a hold of,” he says. “So you have the Spanish sarabande, you have the courantes, which could be Italian or French, and the allemande, German dance. So I wanted to sort of expand on those cultural parameters, and I talked to each composer about being free to bring in other kinds of genres or traditions into their music as they engaged the Bach.”

Haimovitz had premiered and recorded Bach’s Cello Concerto No. 2 (“Naqoyqatsi”) and tapped other composers he had collaborated with, including jazz bandleader David Sanford, the Chinese-born Da Yun and his own wife, Luna Pearl Woolf, who wrote an overture to the sixth suite based on Hawaiian chant.

But even while exploring these new multicultural sounds, he also delved deeper into the Baroque tradition, and will perform the Bach pieces on a cello piccolo, an earlier version of the instrument with five strings made not of metal but of animal gut, as they were in the 18th century.

“All of it kind of changes the resonance of the instrument,” Haimovitz says. “When you relax the pressure on the instrument, you bring the tuning down, suddenly everything rings longer and resonates more, so you start to realize that what Bach had in his mind was not simply a one-voice world. He was really thinking orchestrally. He was really thinking of many voices happening at the same time just like he would in a quartet or a symphony orchestra, but now you have this single instrument that’s resonating in a way that notes bleed into each other and create different textures and different counterpoints.

“There’s a completely different philosophy of sound in Baroque playing. In modern playing, you’re trying to defy nature, you’re trying to sustain and project a whole, and Baroque sound, you’re trying to resonate and let the instrument run its natural course and not get in the way of that. It’s all about resonance.”

By: Kerry Lengel

Read at: Arizona Republic

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