Music Preview: Cellist Matt Haimovitz serves bach with a beer

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Glasses of wine, cocktails and pints of beer sit on the tables in the intimate club. Chatter abounds, peppered with laughter. The buzz is palpable; everyone seems in a good mood as the light dims and the show begins. But rather than the usual alternative rock band, folk singer or jazz combo, a solo cellist takes the stage. He sits down to play "stodgy" Bach, no less.

Photographer, Post-Gazette
Cellist Matt Haimovitz will bring classical music to a more casual venue -- Club Cafe.
Click photo for larger image.

Matt Haimovitz

With: Violinist Andy Simionescu

Where: Club Cafe, South Side.

When: 7 p.m. Friday.

Tickets: $15-$17; 412-431-4950.

With: The Israel Chamber Orchestra, Nizan Leibovich, conductor.

Where: Heinz Hall, Downtown.

When: 8 p.m. Nov. 1.

Tickets: $17.50-$49.50; 412-392-4900.

The result is even more unexpected. As the musician passionately digs into the cello; it melds with the environment and enraptures the audience, even among the clinking of glasses. By the end of the night, Bach's famed cello suites seem fresher than they have before -- and so does classical music.

The musician in question is cellist Matt Haimovitz, and believe it or not, this scenario has occurred across the United States. It happened in Pittsburgh in 2002, when Club Cafe booked the pioneering musician; again in 2003, when the Miro Quartet joined him; and again Friday when he takes the stage with violinist Andy Simionescu. This latest appearance is part of a tour in support of his new album, "Goulash!," traveling to bastions of popular music, such as the Knitting Factory (New York), the Prism Coffeehouse (Charlottesville), Fitzgerald's Cafe (Chicago) and the Tractor Tavern (Seattle). More and more, classical music and popular culture are meeting for drinks, and Haimovitz is serving.

"With these venues, there were moments at first where I would have doubts," says Haimovitz, who returns to Pittsburgh for a more traditional concert with the Israel Chamber Orchestra just three weeks after the Club Cafe concert. "Am I blowing every chance to play the music I love?"

But Haimovitz's first such gig, at the Iron and Horse Music Hall in Northampton, Mass., was a breakout success. "There was something about that experience of discovery and the buzz in the room," he says. It convinced him this was the right path to take. That was in 2000, and he has averaged 50 club gigs a year ever since, complementing his concert hall appearances. With Haimovitz leading the way, classical groups such as Ethel, ICE, So Percussion, Absolute, Zeitgeist and others are performing more in clubs and coffeehouses than ever before.

"I get the feeling more and more I am not going to be the last," he says. "Classical music can't survive the way it is; it can't be isolated from the rest of culture. It is too good of music and there are other ways of presenting it. This is such a direct way of taking it to the people."

In several respects, the 34-year-old Haimovitz is an unlikely helmsman for this movement. A prodigy born in Tel Aviv and raised in the Silicon Valley, he didn't even listen to pop and rock growing up. "I really didn't know any of this existed," he says. "It sounds funny, [but] I really grew up isolated. We just listened to classical." The culture he did get was central European, specifically the Romanian roots of his family. His mother was a pianist, and she surrounded him with music, frequently taking him to the opera and the symphony in nearby San Francisco.

His mother also started him on the cello, and he flourished in prodigious fashion. He soloed in Saint-Saens Cello Concerto No. 1 with Zubin Mehta and the Israel Philharmonic in 1984, when he was only 13. That concert was televised, and it led to work with top conductors James Levine, Daniel Barenboim, Charles Dutoit, Sir Neville Marriner, Seiji Ozawa, Michael Tilson Thomas and others. He later won an Avery Fisher Career Grant and signed as an exclusive artist on Deutsche Grammophon, for which he recorded some canonical works and later specialized in 20th-century repertoire. He figured he was set, that he would be a concert cellist for the rest of his life.

Simultaneously, however, things started to change for Haimovitz and for the music industry. After the CD bubble burst, Deutsche Grammophon let Haimovitz go, and he decided to curtail his touring life for a college degree at Harvard.

"I was so focused early on, spending time with the instrument," he says. "[And] in those years [of touring], everything seemed abstract to me. I began to question if this is what I would be doing in 50 years. What would my life be like traveling from place to place?"

After graduation, he and his wife, composer Luna Pearl Woolf, decided to take a grassroots approach. They founded Oxingale records in 2000, in part to facilitate Haimovitz's desire to record the complete Bach Cello Suites before he was 30 (something the major labels were balking at). "We had no idea how to market or about distribution, but we enjoyed the process," he says of the recording work. "It was liberating to have that control."

The length of the Bach compositions seemed to demand a different venue than the standard recital hall. "If I am going to play all six, people might as well be able to drink and eat," he says laughing. Not to mention that outside of Yo-Yo Ma there was no market for a solo cellist performing Bach. "I asked a concert manager and was basically laughed out of the room," he says.

That led to the seminal concert at the Iron Horse. "They turned away people," says Haimovitz. "For the first time I was playing classical music for new listeners. I felt excitement for the first time since I was younger, playing for the New York Philharmonic for the first time. That sense of discovery was back."

Haimovitz was refueled and playing with a purpose. Next thing the cellist knew, he was performing in places like CBGB's, and on tour with indie bands on the Ropeadope tour.

It pushed him to expand his own repertoire. His new album, "Goulash!," explodes with an energetic reading of Led Zeppelin's "Kashmir" for four cellos. Bartok is the featured composer on the disc, but works such as Romanian Dances or Violin Rhapsody No. 1 gain a new flavor surrounded with improvisational jams with DJ Olive, a turntablist.

"Goulash!" is a fiery collection that backs up Haimovitz's notion that classical music isn't defined by where it's presented. He isn't interested in crossover music, nor is he looking to record albums of transcribed pop music. Haimovitz's mission is to bring classical music to those who might not know they like it. "I am stripping away in one fell swoop all the concert traditions that have built up over the last 50 years, and hopefully some young listeners will be caught up in that."

Playing smaller venues doesn't pull in the same as a concert hall fee, but it isn't far off. "I assume some of the risk financially, taking only a certain percentage from the door," he says. Haimovitz's concert hall appearances, such as the Israel Chamber Orchestra's at Heinz Hall under the baton of Nizan Leibovich, partially subsidize his club shows. That November concert, "A Salute to Israel," is presented by the PSO and the Kollel Jewish Learning Center and is sure to do well. It also will pay tribute to Charles Perlow, who will receive the Shalom Award for his philanthropic and education work in Pittsburgh.

But even if he wasn't making much money, one gets the feeling Haimovitz would find a way to do club shows. "Even if a handful show up," he says, "the magic between us can bring out my best."


Post-Gazette classical music critic Andrew Druckenbrod can be reached at adruckenbrod@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1750.


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