At age13, cellist Matt Haimovitz made his debut with the Israel Philharmonic. Thirty years later, he’s playing the club circuit, just a man and a cello built in 1710 by Venetian luthier Matteo Gofriller. Haimovitz—who has the chops and the musical pedigree to be playing first cello in a metropolitan symphony—is instead taking classical music to the masses.
“I think of most of these venues as listening rooms,” says Haimovitz, “but a lot of them do have bars, and people are sometimes drinking and eating.”
For a cellist who studied at Juilliard and graduated from Harvard, the notion of performing in front of a crowd drinking Miller High Life and munching on nachos plays against type. Haimovitz says that he isn’t after the beer, but the intimacy smaller clubs provide.
“I wanted to put a human face on the music,” he says. “Where I live, in western Massachusetts, we have a very rich folk music culture, and I tried out playing all six Bach Cello Suites at the Iron Horse music hall. The response from the public was extraordinary. There was just a really broad array of musical backgrounds and musical tastes. It was the first time I had reached such a broad audience.”
After such a positive reception, Haimovitz wanted to see if other venues in other towns would be as accepting. He toured Bach’s Suites to Los Angeles, Seattle, Chicago and New York, playing only rock clubs and cafes and always getting the same response: a packed, attentive house. Encouraged by the feedback, Haimovitz took his idea to the extreme, landing a gig at CBGB—the New York club infamous for jump-starting the careers of the Ramones, Blondie and the Talking Heads.
“CBGB’s initials stand for country, bluegrass and blues, and then they ended up being famous for the punk movement,” he says. “But funnily enough, the promoter there has a classical background, he’s a classical violinist who studied at Juilliard, so he knew me from the classical world. It was amazing for me to discover and hard to believe that he had never presented any classical music there before.”
Growing up in New York City across town from the club, Haimovitz had never gone to see a show at CBGB. But his sister, an avid punk rock fan, went to shows all the time. After Haimovitz secured the gig, his sister told him all about the venue. He still wasn’t totally prepared.
“Walking in it was pretty overwhelming,” he says. “Walking in it’s so grungy. It’s like walking into Dante’s Inferno. And yet I felt right at home. Everything about it was about supporting independent strains of music and free expression and free speech.”
Haimovitz’s mission to bring the Bach to the barstool crowd appeared to be succeeding. Sitting behind his cello and looking out into the audience, he saw ripped punk rock T-shirts and tattoos at one table and Brooks Brothers suits at the next. All, says Haimovitz, listened quietly as he played Bach and his own arrangement of the Jimi Hendrix version of “The Star Spangled Banner.”
Haimovitz’s new CD Anthem is loosely built around the experimentation of the Hendrix tune, but it’s not the Hendrix covers that define the cellist as such a rebel. Neither is it that he contributes to a track on guitarist John McLaughlin’s recent album Thieves and Poets, or his improvisations on Romanian folk tunes with jazz bassist Rob Wasserman and former Kronos Quartet cellist Joan Jeanrenaud for Wasserman’s album Trios, or even his show at CBGB. What distinguishes Haimovitz from his peers is his embrace of little-performed 20th-century classical compositions.
Anthem is a blend of solo cello works by living American composers, including several new commissions and many first recordings of works by Osvaldo Golijov, Luna Pearl Woolf, Lou Harrison, Tod Machover, Steven Mackey, David Sandford, Robert Stern, Augusta Read Thomas and Toby Twining. Not exactly household names like Bach, Beethoven and Mozart.
“When you look at my repertoire, it’s a fringe of fringe,” he says.
“Classical music is already a fringe part of our culture.
Performing these composers is something that so few people get to hear. That’s part of why I wanted to do a 50-state tour, to make this music available and accessible to people.”
The strongest part of the classical music tradition has always been the groundbreaking composers who revolutionize the musical experience, he says, adding that during the 20th century a great chasm has been created between composers and listeners.
“Most audiences began to find contemporary music unintelligible,” he says, “but during the last 20 years, you have movements in classical music that are starting to break away from that, and they absorb a lot of world music, a lot of vernaculars. They are trying to reach and touch an audience with their music. It’s no longer just an intellectual exercise. What I would like to show with this recording, and then taking it on the road, is the energy and the emotion and the urgency of this music.”
That doesn’t mean, however, that Haimovitz is going punk rock and lighting his 300-year-old cello on fire at the end of his set. Just taking the priceless instrument into CBGB and other rock clubs around the country is enough for now.
“When I walked off the stage [at CBGB], there was this whole audience of punkers and other people milling around, and there’s my cello alone on stage,” he says. “My heart definitely skipped a beat, but of course everything was fine.”