The San Diego Union-Tribune: Improvisation drives an eclectic program as Haimovitz and Iyer bring first joint tour to San Diego

March 5, 2019

Vijay Iyer (Courtesy photo)

Some artists blur musical boundaries; some leap from one genre to another. In their concert here Thursday, cellist Matt Haimovitz and pianist/composer Vijay Iyer — both internationally acclaimed award winners — will blur, leap and smash the boundaries that often confine adventurous musicians.

The duo’s ArtPower! concert at UC San Diego’s Conrad Prebys Concert Hall will likely feature pieces by J. S. Bach, the late Korean composer Isang Yun, jazz great Billy Strayhorn and Iyer, a 2013 MacArthur Foundation “genius” grant recipient.

“Putting these works alongside each other is not just eclecticism for its own sake,” said the New York-based Iyer from Harvard University, where he teaches. “The program has coherence. People who never heard of me or Strayhorn are now hearing them with Bach.

“It’s time to rethink the category of classical music, to repurpose it. It’s actually a racist category. All it’s really done in the past has been to reinforce European-white culture above everybody else’s. This program is kind of an effort to dismantle classical music as a category and to do something with emotional power. It’s not just a stunt, it has meaning — and meaning comes from emotional impact.”

At Thursday’s concert, each musician will play solo pieces and then unite as a duo.

Iyer, 47, was named Downbeat magazine’s Jazz Artist of the Year for the fourth time in 2018. He studied violin when he was young and has composed works for such noted classical musicians as Haimovitz, violinist Jennifer Koh and the Yo-Yo Ma-led Silk Road Ensemble.

When on stage, the versatile Iyer never plays a piece the same way twice.

“It’s like a DJ who tries to make choices with the mood of the audience and carry them where they aren’t yet,” he said. “I figure out where we are and where I want us to get to. All the music I play, it’s always full of improvisation.”

Matt Haimovitz
Matt Haimovitz (Steph MacKinnon)

That’s a new experience for Haimovitz, 48. Then again, he is the one who suggested the two go on tour.

“Even I don’t know what comes next,” Haimovitz said. “I trust Vijay. There’s this way of responding and listening. When things click, you’re in the moment. It’s beautiful, and it may not happen again. It has been a transcendent out-of-body experience every time I’ve walked onstage with him.

“You never know with improvisation. It may not work, but it is always fascinating.”

For many years, Haimovitz has stretched the definition of classical cello by both how and where he plays. Now an associate professor at Montreal’s McGill University and a John Cage Fellow at the New School’s Mannes School of Music in New York, Haimovitz — starting in the early 2000s — performed solo cello concerts at nightclubs and other unconventional venues across the country.

Since then, he has recorded dozens of successful albums and founded an indie label, Oxingale Records, with composer Luna Pearl Woolf, his wife. For his 2016 CD on the Oxingale label, “Overtures to Bach,” Haimovitz commissioned six intrepid composers to write companion pieces to Bach’s cello suites. They included Woolf, Philip Glass and Iyer, who composed “Run” for the album.

Their La Jolla concert is only the third on the debut tour by Iyer and Haimovitz.

“For me, it’s one of the scariest experiences, but unbelievably exhilarating,” Haimovitz said. “Vijay’s core is from the improvisational world. My wiring is towards interpretative playing, getting below surface of works that are sometimes a hundred years old.

“The reason I gravitated to him is that his improvisation is very compositional. That’s absolutely part of the classical tradition, if you go back to Bach, Mozart and Bartok. At the beginning of the 20th century, the improvisation in classical fell by the wayside. Jazz took over in improvisation. Classical composers wanted more control and you began to see a lot more notation. Bach trusted the musician to make sense of it.”

ArtPower! presents Vijay Iyer and Matt Haimovitz

When: 8 p.m. Thursday, with 7 p.m. pre-performance talk at the Loft

Where: Conrad Prebys Concert Hall, UC San Diego, 9500 Gilman Drive, La Jolla

Tickets: $49-$59 (general public); $9 (UCSD students)

Phone: (858) 534-8497

Online: artpower.ucsd.edu

San Diego memory

Matt Haimovitz was in San Diego in 2003 for his “Anthem” tour, which featured the Bach cello concertos, plus his solo rendition of “The Star Spangled Banner” based on the Jimi Hendrix version.

“It was the beginning of the tour and we hadn’t got the word out,” Haimovitz recalled. “Very few people came — it was a biker bar with graffiti on the walls!. It had atmosphere for sure. I remember going to the people at the bar, asking if they’d like to hear Bach. As word got out, more people came to our concerts.”

Pivotal moments

What was a pivotal moment that helped you on the path of pushing musical boundaries?

Matt Haimovitz: “I had grown up in a virtuosic and traditional world. I didn’t play a note of anything written in the 21st century. I was immersed in central European music — operas, choral works and orchestral concerts. I was completely sheltered.

“My first year of college, I was introduced to Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Miles Davis, John Coltrane and others. This was a completely new idea for me and there was no containing it.”

Vijay Iyer: “What drew me into creating music? Probably a pivotal moment for me was hearing Thelonious Monk, which resonated with me. I saw (the 1988 documentary) “Straight No Chaser.” It was electrifying to witness and I felt a sense of connection to music and music-making. The first time I saw it, something really shook me. It was a powerful moment.”

Wood is a freelance writer.

BY: Beth Wood
READ AT: The San Diego Union-Tribune

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