The pioneer cellist

Unconventional Matt Haimovitz plays everything from Bach to Hendrix

April 26, 2007|By Tim Smith | Tim Smith,sun music critic

The first time Matt Haimovitz took the stage at the late and lamented New York club CBGB, where the Talking Heads and the Ramones got their first big boosts, he didn't feel entirely welcome.

"I was sandwiched between four or five punk bands, and I could feel a little resistance," the Israeli-born, Montreal-based Haimovitz says of that night in 2002. "I think the audience came to see if I would survive."

The unease wasn't surprising -- CBGB hadn't ever presented a classical cellist.

"I played one Bach suite," Haimovitz says, "and I could tell the bands were like, `OK, kid, get lost,' But I wanted to stay as long as I could. I played another Bach suite, and then another."

Haimovitz kept on going, even throwing in the world premiere of a piece written for him, before launching into his grand finale, his own arrangement of the legendary Jimi Hendrix version of the national anthem. The cellist won the day.

It has been like that most of the time since Haimovitz, 36, decided to branch out from the more traditional environs of classical music about seven years ago.

Since then he has had his share of distractions, competing with drunks at noisy bars, and even the unwelcome sound of plumbing.

"At a club in Fort Collins, Colo., the bathrooms were right next to the spot where I was playing," Haimovitz says, "so I was asking people not to flush."

Once in Boston, a crazed robber fleeing down a street was stabbing people at random as he went. He nicked Haimovitz along the way, just before the cellist was to appear at a rock 'n' roll club.

"I showed up already in a daze," he says, "and then found that where I was to play, 300 people were crammed in a room while there was a battle of the bands, heavy metal version, on the floor below. It was louder than anything I ever heard, but the people just focused in on my cello. It really showed the power of this music to withstand anything."

That sort of experience "does develop the concentration chops," he says with a laugh.

Haimovitz could easily have stayed firmly on the normal classical path, where he has enjoyed considerable success since his early teens -- a debut in 1984 with Zubin Mehta and the Israel Philharmonic; a debut recording with James Levine and the Chicago Symphony at 17; appearances in major concert halls just about everywhere. But Haimovitz feels strongly that classical music needs to reach into places where people least expect it, and that mission has brought the cellist a whole new career as pioneer.

Tonight, he plays an unconventional venue, the WestSide Cafe in Frederick. Tomorrow he'll be on more ordinary turf in Baltimore, appearing on the chamber music series at the Evergreen House, but his program there is far from music-business-as-usual.

In addition to some Bach, Haimovitz will offer works by three Pulitzer Prize-winning composers, works that have in common literary allusions: Ned Rorem's After Reading Shakespeare; Lewis Spratlan's Shadow, which was partly inspired by the poetry of Arthur Rimbaud (and partly by the Sylvester Stallone character Rambo); and Paul Moravec's Mark Twain Sez.

"The three pieces go great together," Haimovitz says. "Rorem's is a masterpiece. The Spratlan work is all about shadow, light and the reflection of light, looking at material from different perspectives. And the Moravec piece has a lot of humor."

Haimovitz is always seeking new musical experiences. One of his flourishing projects, called "Buck the Concerto," involves asking diverse composers to write works for cello and unusual combinations of instruments.

David Sanford's recently premiered Scherzo Grosso, for example, calls for a big band. Tod Machover's Vinyl Cello, which will be premiered this year, brings together "cello, DJ and interactive audience." And Apres Moi, le Deluge, composed last year by Haimovitz's wife, Luna Pearl Woolf, uses cello and a cappella choir to commemorate victims of Hurricane Katrina.

With so many new things to play, Haimovitz could easily skip the classics entirely. "My greatest love is still traditional repertoire," he says. "Pieces like the Dvorak Concerto are around for a reason.

"But if I go to play with a symphony, I'll try to play a club, too, maybe after the concert the same night, to get a more intimate experience."

The continual back and forth between the expected and unexpected agrees with Haimovitz.

"I have to say it is keeping music really fresh for me," he says. "When I first had conversations with establishment musicians about going to alternative places, they thought I had gone off the deep end. But I think now they realize it is a way to build audiences. They see it as outreach -- I see it as a way of life."

To hear a clip of four cellos performing Led Zeppelin's "Kashmir," go to

Matt Haimovitz performs at 8 tonight at the WestSide Cafe, 1A W. Second St., Frederick ($10; 301-418-6886; and 8 p.m. tomorrow at Evergreen House, 4545 N. Charles St. ($15, $20; 410-516-0341;

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