J.S. Bach hits the taverns and coffeehouses -- again

A pony-tailed cellist takes the master to places where no one knows his name

Classical Music

April 14, 2002|By Tim Smith | Tim Smith,Sun Music Critic

On a typical night, the audience in the concert room at the Ram's Head Tavern in Annapolis sips and chews to the sounds of jazz vocalist Dianne Schuur, a vintage pop artist like Richie Havens or Dr. Hochman's Dynamic Dixieland Band.

At the Prism, a coffeehouse in Charlottesville, Va., Celtic, bluegrass and folk music from Islamic countries are the norm. Groups like Clumsy Lovers, the Lawnmowers and the Gourds ordinarily strut their stuff onstage for happy crowds at Seattle's Tractor Tavern, home to rockabilly, alternative country, "psychodelia" and zydeco.

The last thing you might expect to hear at such places is solo cello music by Johann Sebastian Bach. But that's exactly what those three establishments -- and at least 15 others like them across the country -- have presented this year.

Bach wouldn't complain. He enjoyed a good brew as much as anyone (maybe even a little more). And, in the 1730s, he led an ensemble in a Leipzig coffeehouse where folks could "relax, drink beer, smoke and listen to pleasant music" (as Bach scholar Otto Bettmann notes).

Chances are, the composer would approve of having his cello suites heard in clubs today, particularly the distinctive way Matt Haimovitz is playing them on a 1710 instrument at all those unlikely taverns.

The Israeli-born Haimovitz, 31, sporting a pony tail and retro-'70s garb, is in the midst of his national "Bach Listening-Room Tour." He's driving himself to many of the locales in his new hybrid car, the trunk filled with compact discs that are on sale in the lobbies of each venue.

The classical music world is not accustomed to anything like this road show.

"I'm having a really great time," Haimovitz says. "My classical manager has no idea where I'm playing."

The cellist is tossing aside just about every standard procedure for classical music touring, from formal attire to formal fees.

"The tour is totally unsubsidized," Haimovitz says. "We don't have any sponsorship. My payment depends on who shows up; it's tied to the ticket sales. There have been a couple times when concerts were sold out, and we began to approach my usual classical fee. But that's rare.

"I'm definitely doing this out of a spirit of adventure; I'm willing to take less money for that. I don't need zillions of dollars. We're pouring our money into where our heart is."

His own label

The "we" constitutes Haimovitz and his wife, composer Luna Pearl Woolf. Two years ago in Massachusetts (Haimovitz teaches at the state university in Amherst), the couple founded Oxingale Records as an outlet for the cellist.

The first release was Bach's Suites for Unaccompanied Cello, followed by a collection of works for soprano and cello. A third release, dedicated to the memory of eminent cellist Leonard Rose, Haimovitz's primary teacher, is due soon.

(The name of the record label is derived from a line by Voltaire, who said of a great 18th-century cellist, "You have turned an ox into a nightingale.")

The experience of recording for his own label, after years under contract with the prestigious classical label Deutsche Grammophon (DG), has been liberating for Haimovitz.

"I liked the idea of doing things on my own terms," he says. "And Luna had great ideas about packaging the recordings with a folksy feel. Something about having this artistic control was very meaningful for us.

"Then we had to figure out how to get the CDs into shops. It was a total mystery."

(They are now available at some locations of Borders and Barnes & Noble, as well as online through Amazon.com.)

"I started at DG at a time when the classical recording industry was still thriving," the cellist says of the mid-1980s, when he was making waves as a teen-age prodigy.

"DG had [Herbert von] Karajan, [Leonard] Bernstein and [Vladimir] Horowitz among their artists when I signed. That was pretty amazing. I recorded for the company for 10 years, and there were some dramatic changes during that time."

Those changes included an emphasis on safe repertoire; some of Haimovitz's recordings of contemporary repertoire were never issued in the U.S.

"They had no idea how to market these things," Haimovitz says. "But they didn't really know what to do with Mozart symphonies, either. The market was changing so much."

Dynamic Bach

As recording opportunities have dwindled, several noted musicians, among them violinist Elmar Oliveira and pianist Santiago Rodriguez, have launched their own labels. For Haimovitz, there was an additional impetus -- a fresh interest in Bach's cello suites, widely regarded as a pinnacle of Western musical art.

"I had played at least two movements a day every single day from the age of 10 until I was 20," Haimovitz says. "But then I didn't touch the suites for 10 years. I started to find them intimidating."

An invitation to perform the six suites at a German festival to mark the 250th anniversary of Bach's death in 2000 prompted Haimovitz to revisit the scores.

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