The adventurous virtuoso
By Patrick McDonagh
Matt Haimovitz has a knack for the unexpected. One of the most widely admired cellists of his generation, Haimovitz takes a certain delight in performing in places where classical musicians of his stature simply aren’t expected to turn up. Like pizza parlours and punk rock clubs, for instance.
And, while Haimovitz can handle works by the canonical composers of classical music with tremendous verve, it isn’t too surprising to find him tackling a piece of rock ’n’ roll now and then, or collaborating with a hip-hop artist like Montreal’s Socalled.
“When you hear that cellist Matt Haimovitz is coming to town,” declared the Boston Globe, “you automatically wonder what sort of unpredictable, challenging project he’s working on.”
If Haimovitz has an appetite for setting off in unorthodox directions, he is more than happy to take his students along for the ride.
A professor of performance at the Schulich School of Music, Haimovitz created the all-cello ensemble Uccello to offer his students an out-of-the-ordinary collaborative experience. In April 2010, the eight-piece band (including Haimovitz) hit the pavement for a 10-day tour in the northeastern United States to perform an eclectic mix of jazz works rarely touched by cellists (much less a cello band). Post-tour, they cloistered themselves in the studio for an intense three-day session to record Meeting of the Spirits, an album based on their performance set list.
And then, the shocker: the student project garnered a Grammy nomination for best classical-crossover album. So in February, Haimovitz and Uccello (minus those members committed to cello competitions elsewhere) travelled to Los Angeles, where they performed at a special event held at the Canadian consulate. While they didn’t end up winning the gold-plated gramophone, they hobnobbed happily with members of Arcade Fire and other Canadian nominees, soaking up a spotlight that rarely shines on cello students.
“The whole thing was crazy,” says Amaryllis Jarczyk, a Uccello member in her final year of undergraduate studies. “We first learned we were nominated for a Grammy by a text message at 12:30 am, but it didn’t sink in at first. I mean, I’m only 23! We’re still students! We don’t have such ideas of grandeur.”
Charting his own path
It’s an unusual trajectory, no doubt, but Haimovitz has been fearlessly embracing the unusual for years. For instance, he was the first classical musician to ever grace the stage of New York’s legendary punk-rock hothouse, the CBGB club, taking the cello to an audience that was more accustomed to listening to the Ramones or Patti Smith. In 2004, he won the American Music Center’s “Trailblazer Award,” recognizing his contributions to American music. He has been sharing his unique artistic explorations with his McGill students and fellow faculty members since joining the Schulich School of Music that same year.
“I could tell something very special was happening at McGill when I was first invited by [then Dean of Music] Don McLean to apply,” Haimovitz recalls. “The new building was a hole in the ground, but hearing people talk about the attention to the recording arts here and the new Centre for Interdisciplinary Research in Music Media and Technology, it seemed like an ideal environment. Plus, the faculty members and students here are of an incredibly high calibre.”
Not surprisingly, Haimovitz has found collaborators among faculty as well as students, joining with fellow Schulich School professors Jonathan Crow, BMus’98, (violin) and Douglas McNabney (viola) to record two albums, Mozart the Mason and Bach’s Goldberg Variations. The trio’s efforts so far have won terrific reviews from the New York Times and other publications, not to mention a Juno Award nomination. A third album is in the works.
McNabney uses a hockey metaphor to describe their work together. “Gretzky could see patterns evolving on the ice and would put the puck on someone’s stick before they realized where their stick was going to be,” he says. “And playing chamber music with this trio is like that. It’s about seeing the patterns evolve, keeping your antennae alert to where the music is going, and being open and receptive. It is a very special kind of intensive collaboration, the ultimate teamwork.”
“Chamber music is the perfect synthesis of solo and ensemble,” adds Crow. “Everyone has to be prepared like a soloist and to perform like a soloist, but then you need to integrate that capacity into a group.” There is no room for prima donnas; generosity and openness are key.
That kind of generosity also shapes Haimovitz’s teaching. “My approach, steeped in what my own mentors did with me, involves a Socratic back-and-forth, which can be very intense,” he says. “Ultimately, you want students to develop a third ear, becoming critical listeners so they can be their own teachers.” But in his profound commitment to his art he is also a role model, demonstrating the level of engagement demanded for success in a difficult and competitive profession.
His engagement has deep roots, as Haimovitz’s path began with impressive “child prodigy” milestones: falling in love with the cello when he was eight and badgering his instructors to teach him how to replicate the sounds he had heard on stage; performing as a soloist with Zubin Mehta and the Israeli Philharmonic in Tel Aviv at age 13; making his Carnegie Hall debut as a stand-in for his teacher, the renowned Leonard Rose, playing Schubert’s String Quartet in C with Isaac Stern, Schlomo Mintz, Pinchas Zukerman and Mstislav Rostropovich; making his first recording with Deutsche Grammophon at age 17 with James Levine and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra; and, in his early twenties, being selected by renowned composer György Ligeti for the premiere recording of a sonata for solo cello.
A pause for reflection
Around that time, Haimovitz decided he needed a break from a life on the road, performing the same pieces repeatedly. “I wanted to kick back, get some perspective on what I was doing, and, most importantly, find a community to be part of,” he says. “I had been travelling and playing concerts, and hadn’t really invested in myself as a human. I had started so young, and things weren’t lining up in my mind the way I thought they should. Here I was, playing for people three or four times as old as me.”
So Haimovitz stepped off the tour circuit to study at Harvard, where his research involved poring over Beethoven’s manuscript for his Opus 22 for cello, studying the compositional process. College also opened his world to other sorts of music. “I had led a very contained life musically, but in college I first began listening to people like Jimi Hendrix and Miles Davis. Wow. It was mind-blowing,” he says. “I had to process that for a couple of years.”
In the years that followed, Haimovitz transformed his world. He and his wife, composer Luna Pearl Woolf, created their own Oxingale label in 2000 when major labels shied away from his idea of recording all of Bach’s solo cello suites.
Then, to launch the resulting J. S. Bach: Six Suites for Solo Cello, they decided on something different: Haimovitz would perform the suites at the Iron Horse, a folk and blues venue in Amherst, Massachusetts, their home at the time. The event packed the house, drawing classical patrons as well as indie rock and folk fans. “It was electric! I hadn’t felt that excitement and freshness since my first outings with orchestras,” recalls Haimovitz. “It was a renaissance for me.”
Before long he was playing in taverns and folk halls, restaurants and coffee houses. And he stretched his repertoire across musical boundaries, adapting works from composer Elliot Carter, guitar legends John McLaughlin and Hendrix, avant-garde rockers Radiohead and even classic-rock mainstay Led Zeppelin. “I want to keep the cello alive in all its aspects, whether by working with composers to create new music or pushing the boundaries of what the instrument can do,” he says. “I want people to know this music is alive and breathing. Once they show up in the room, they’re mine. That’s my job: I make them listen.”
And listen they do. Haimovitz recently performed with Christopher O’Riley, host of NPR’s From the Top and another committed musical boundary-crosser. “Matt has such a great sense of integrity and creativity, really throwing himself into every project and every style that he addresses,” says O’Riley. “He’s a masterful cellist, but also extraordinarily open to new experience and very creative.” Their audience in Billings, Montana, agreed, rewarding the duo with three standing ovations for what the Billings Gazette labeled a “mind-bending performance” of works ranging from Bach to Piazzolla to Radiohead.
Making Meeting of The Spirits
Performance, Haimovitz stresses, is not only a mind-bending exercise for the audience; it also demands a profound level of intellectual and physical engagement from the musician. “I tell my students that playing a concert is worth 10 lessons. They will learn so much about the music they are playing, what their body goes through, how well they really know the piece.”
Uccello’s Meeting of the Spirits, for instance, required almost a year in the development. The process began with an initial residency at Domaine Forget, a musicians’ retreat on the St. Lawrence River in Quebec’s Charlevoix region, where the young musicians and their professor first discussed the project and the works to be performed. This was followed by months of practice, an intensive pre-tour rehearsal period, and then touring and recording.
“It was pretty taxing, and as none of us are jazz musicians, it was a challenge to learn the styles,” says Jarczyk.
“But by the end of the tour,” she adds, “each piece had found its own personality, which made it a lot easier when we went into the studio.” The recording itself demanded three 14-hour days, with their Grammy Award winning producer, David Frost, asking them to replay different bars, reconfiguring their seating around the microphone, and generally trying all the tricks of the trade to get the sound perfect (Frost would go on to add another Grammy to his collection, in part, for his work on Meeting of the Spirits).
“It was a long, tough process, but we all learned a lot,” Jarczyk says. “Matt provides us with the technical tools so we can learn to play anything, and then pushes us to really put our personality into our playing, which opens up a world of possibilities. He’s really trying to make each of us an artist. He’s an amazing musician and a wonderful teacher.”
“It has come full circle for me with Meeting of the Spirits,” says Haimovitz, who in March accompanied Uccello to the South by Southwest Festival in Austin, Texas, one of the premiere showcases in North America for up-and-coming indie bands (and, again, not the sort of place where one typically encounters cello-playing university students).
“My teachers invited me to play with them,” says Haimovitz. “And playing with top musicians in the real world, where regardless of age and experience you are on a level playing field, means you are learning first-hand. I would be very happy to take credit for some of the things my students are doing together on the album, because they have achieved a level that is masterful.”
The mastery, of course, is also a product of what their professor has shared with them: a wealth of knowledge and experience distilled from decades of performing concerts with orchestras and chamber music with trios and quartets, premiering new works, improvising with jazz musicians, and bringing the cello to unlikely venues and unsuspecting audiences everywhere. And he is far from finished. “Now I have to think of a sequel for Uccello,” he says. “This has been incredibly successful. We need to follow it up.”
Patrick McDonagh is a Montreal-based writer. He is the author of Idiocy: A Cultural History, and has written forThe Walrus, the Globe and Mail and Chatelaine.
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