Santa Fe New Mexican – Pasatiempo: In the language of Bach: Cellist Matt Haimovitz

September 15, 2017
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Matt Haimovitz; photo Brent Calis

“There are a handful of human beings in our history that you sort of can’t imagine the world without their existence,” Matt Haimovitz said in response to a question about the never-ending importance of Johann Sebastian Bach. “You think of Shakespeare, for example, and I think Bach is one of those people. He somehow balances the heart and the head and spirituality and human nature. I find that everything comes together in a way that is so universal. It is a mystery and also how prolific he was and the breadth of what he composed. For us cellists, it is our bible, the foundation of our repertoire.”

Haimovitz, who is renowned for his solo recitals, offers three this weekend in Santa Fe: at the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum, at the Bridge at Santa Fe Brewing Company, and at the Scottish Rite Center. At each one, he alternates selections from Bach’s solo cello suites with related pieces by six composers he commissioned: Philip Glass, Du Yun, Vijay Iyer, Roberto Sierra, David Sanford, and Luna Pearl Woolf. The sequence was recorded on his 2016 album Overtures to Bach (on the Oxingale label he and his wife, Woolf, established). Haimovitz’s phrasings and emphases on the Bach suites are always innovative and personal, but his performances of the works by Yun and the others are often extravagantly spirited, sometimes veering into wild and atonal territories.

The cellist, born in Bat Yam, Israel, made his debut in 1984, at the age of thirteen, with Zubin Mehta and the Israel Philharmonic. His Carnegie Hall debut came with a last-minute substitution for his teacher, Leonard Rose. Haimovitz and Shlomo Mintz, Mstislav Rostropovich, Isaac Stern, and Pinchas Zukerman performed Schubert’s String Quintet in C. Bach is a deep favorite, but this is an adventurous musician: His 50-state Anthem tour in 2003 celebrated living American composers and featured his arrangement of Jimi Hendrix’s screamingly beautiful Woodstock performance of “The Star-Spangled Banner.”

Haimovitz, who also studied with Ronald Leonard and Yo-Yo Ma, plays a cello made in 1710 by Matteo Goffriller of Venice. His set at the Santa Fe Brewing Company is an example of his pioneering classical-performance excursions into coffee houses, clubs, and parks. This and the other two concerts are presented by Performance Santa Fe. Pasatiempo found Haimovitz at home in Montreal, where he resides and teaches cello at McGill University.

Pasatiempo: Tell us about these six composers’ interpretations.

Matt Haimovitz: They’re very much in the language of the composer, but what I asked each one to do is engage the suite that they were assigned and also to open up the influences. I mean, Bach was synthesizing all kinds of styles around him, whatever he could get his hands on, from Spain and Italy and France. Anything he knew about he was incorporating into those suites. But he didn’t have access to jazz or Hawaiian chants.

Pasa: Or the music of India, for example — Vijay Iyer’s parents are from India.

Haimovitz: Right, and my theory is that if he [Bach] had come into contact with any of that music, we would have more suites. So I asked everybody to open it up, culturally. It’s amazing, though, how they do reference Bach in certain ways, sometimes very abstractly, but they kind of hone in on certain aspects. The piece by Vijay, for example, is so sunny and sort of celebrates the low C string of the instrument and the tuning and overtones of the instrument.

Pasa: Iyer is an amazing jazz pianist, but how would he write for cello?

Haimovitz: But Bach also was a keyboard player, and it’s kind of unbelievable what he did for the cello. Vijay’s a good example because when I first got the score, I took a look at it and I thought, This is impossible. I can’t play this on the cello. I tried for three days, and it still wasn’t sounding any better. Then I started to sort of change articulations and make it my own dynamics, and all of a sudden it started to really take on a life and make sense. I asked Vijay, “Is it OK that I’m doing this with your piece?” He said, “Absolutely. I studied the manuscript that had survived through Anna Magdalena, Bach’s second wife, and I saw that she gives very little indication to the performer, so I figured I’m writing in that style.” That’s why I love working with composers who don’t know the cello, because they dream up things I haven’t thought of as a cellist, and I have to figure out if it’s possible.

Pasa: That’s a generous way of thinking about it.

Haimovitz: Well, these composers that I chose are so intuitive in terms of performance, about what’s going to happen in performance, and each one of them is absolutely thinking of what it feels like and what’s possible. But for sure they stretch the technique. There are things that now feel second nature to me, but, like with Vijay’s piece, when I started performing it I had never used the bow like that before. I mean, I’m using the bow like a drummer. I’m creating pulsations I’ve never done before.

Pasa: How about the other five?

Haimovitz: Philip Glass is the most Bachlike. Bach inspired him so much as a child. I think he’s a composer because of Bach. And Du Yun, who just won a Pulitzer earlier this year [for her opera Angel’s Bone], gosh, we spent several Skype sessions sculpting the piece. She gave me something, and then she didn’t know exactly how it would work. Then I would play it, and she would sing and say, “No, I want it like this,” and then I’d say, “I think we should notate this like that so other cellists can understand what you want.” It was pretty much a back-and-forth.

Pasa: The David Sanford piece is very minimalist compared to the others.

Haimovitz: His piece was pretty much fully formed when he brought it to me. We worked together to sort of refine some dynamics and some stylistic things. He worked with me on sort of tapping into the Charles Mingus-style solo bass. That suite is scordatura, and David honored that, tuning the C string down to a B. There’s another example: David’s not a cellist but he [was sympathetic about a cellist’s] left-hand position and what kind of fingerings are possible.

Pasa: Is cello your sole instrument?

Haimovitz: I have played viola da gamba, but nobody knows. I’ve never recorded or performed on it, but I love it.

Pasa: What else do you have going on in 2017?

Haimovitz: There’s another composer I’m fascinated with: Isang Yun, who’s having a 100th anniversary on Sept. 17. He was kidnapped by South Korea and accused of espionage, but all he was doing in North Korea was bringing classical music. He was a cellist and an extraordinary composer but he’s very little known in North America. I had a chance to record live his Cello Concerto, which is probably the hardest piece I’ve ever had to learn. We did that in Linz, Austria, on June 12.

Pasa: In what way was that concerto so difficult?

Haimovitz: Yun was very much in the Schoenbergian style, and he brought in Asian influences and instruments and timbres, so it was a whole new language he had to create to bridge the two worlds. It’s incredibly moving. For that, I also used a plectrum, so it’s a very different, metallic kind of sound. I’m also working on an improvisational project with Vijay. We had our first recital this summer. That was fascinating and a real revelation.

By: Paul Weideman

Read at: Santa Fe New Mexican – Pasatiempo

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