Sarasota Herald-Tribune: Classical music meets jazz improv in Ringling New Stages

February 17, 2019

Matt Haimovitz and Vijay Iyer perform together and in solos for the contemporary arts series in the Historic Asolo Theater

When jazz composer Vijay Iyer wrote a piece for classical cellist Matt Haimovitz recently, Haimovitz took a look at the score and deemed it unplayable.

The piece was written as an overture to Bach’s C Major Cello Suite and was part of a series of compositions Haimovitz commissioned from six composers as companion pieces to the original Bach suites. The score, as was the case for much Baroque music, lacked many of the notations one might expect to find on sheet music and was, in Haimovitz’s words, “quite open.”

“At first I struggled with it,” said Haimovitz, who will join Iyers next weekend in the Historic Asolo Theater as part of The Ringling’s New Stages series of contemporary performances. “I couldn’t understand how it would be possible. It took a couple of days and then I kind of had a breakthrough. It opened up a whole new approach for how to solve and realize some of these new ideas on a classical instrument.”

Haimovitz teaches music at McGill University in Montreal and is a John Cage Fellow at the New School’s Mannes School of Music in New York. Critically acclaimed, he’s known for his iconoclastic approach to the cello.

Iyer was the recipient of the Hermitage Artist Retreat’s Greenfield Prize in 2012 and received a MacArthur “genius” grant in 2013. He is known for improvisational jazz piano playing with the Vijay Iyer Trio.

“It’s quite a challenge to offer this to a contemporary composer, to dare to put your work alongside Bach,” said Iyer. “How do you even start?”

His overture, titled “Run,” “exploits the resonances of the instrument. It’s almost a perpetual motion thing, certainly in keeping with Bach’s language for cello instruments,” Iyer said. “I think it pushes the technical envelope a little bit. It’s also meant to have a certain rhythmic appeal; again, because it uses the resonances of the instrument, it has a big sound.”

In addition to Iyer, the cello overtures were composed by Philip Glass, Du Yun, Roberto Sierra, David Stanford and Luna Pearl Woolf.

Haimovitz was “intrigued by what (Iyer) might bring” to the series of overtures, even if he was taken somewhat aback by what Iyer produced.

“First of all, he was transcending the normal physical, technical approach to the instrument, using the idea of the pulse and impulse through feeling these things the way a drummer would, more of a rhythm section,” said Haimovitz. “The cello is often treated more melodically, more singing. I had to approach the bow in a very different way, and string crossings, and also the sense of time. Now it feels very organic and as though it was like that all along.”

Iyer acknowledged that he “knew it would be a difficult piece to play.” But, he said, Haimovitz “really owned the piece.”

For the New Stages concert, Iyer and Haimovitz will perform both solo and together in a program that includes works by Zakir Hussein, John McLaughlin, Ravi Shankar, David Sanford and Billy Strayhorn, as well as Iyer’s own compositions.

“The unity in the program comes from us,” said Iyer. “It’s the performer’s job to tie it all together in a experience that feels full and nuanced and coherent in some way.”

Iyer’s proclivity for improvisation can be a little intimidating to someone like Haimovitz.

“It’s very scary from my world,” Haimovitz said. “From minute to minute you don’t repeat anything. You try to learn from things you don’t like.”

BY: Susan L. Rife
READ AT: Sarasota Herald-Tribune

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