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Classical Love 

Cellist Matt Haimovitz gets a good idea.

Matt Haimovitz is buried in national acclaim for bringing his cello into sold-out non-traditional venues--New York City punk landmark CBGB, for one--and ripping out some of the most insane classical Bach you could ever hope to hear. A dozen or so years ago he was a distinguished prodigy. These days, he's on a mission to expose people who regularly attend rock shows, but have never set foot into a symphony hall, to the same joy that he finds in the music of classical composers both dead and alive.

Touring in support of his new album, Anthem, featuring music by modern American composers, Haimovitz spoke with the Weekly about everything from sonatas to the Daughter of Satan.

Tucson Weekly: Where did the spark to do this kind of tour first ignite within you? Why you?

MH: I think what led to it is a confluence of things. One is the age I live in and the generation I belong to, and years of looking out in the concert hall and seeing older, smaller audiences, and feeling sadness that there weren't members of my own generation. The desire to reach younger generations was part of it. We've taken for granted for many years that there's an audience for this music. At this day and age, the competitiveness, the immensity of how much information is out there, I think a classical musician needs to build an audience the same way an upstart rock band does. Whether it was written last year or 200 years ago, the music has to be so strong that you can actually touch it, that it has a texture, that it moves you. Too often the concert hall is too routine. When I go into a smaller venue, I can't really predict what will happen. The intimacy of that--that's where classical music, for the most part, originated.

TW: Odds say that by now someone's thrown up in the bathroom of a bar to your wonderful Bach. Are there people in the world of classical music who are bug-eyed hysterical that you're taking what has traditionally been for Americans a somewhat "sophisticated" experience, and giving it to the po' folk?

MH: Yeah, I think I remember a venue in Cleveland, an old Latin ballroom where they used to dance and now present concerts. They have a bar. I remember after my sound check, someone very well dressed, an older man, walking in and looking around and saying, "This is no place for classical music," and walking out. There are wonderful things about concert halls. Nothing beats having an incredible acoustic and playing in the Concertgebouw in Amsterdam or Boston Symphony Hall, or Benaroya in Seattle. It's wonderful to experience music that way, so I can understand that reaction. On the other hand, Bach was very much a human being. His music expresses universal human nature and emotions that all of us experience and approach at different levels. Instinctually there's something for everyone. So on the practical side of having ticket prices so high, if someone who loves classical music can't go in and hear it, that's a disaster. There are people intimidated by the concert hall, or the image classical music has. It's so extraordinary; it's for everyone, actually.

TW: What can people who listen to very little classical music expect if they hear you on this tour?

MH: I think this particular round is going to be the diversity and the range of what the cello can do. It transforms into different instruments and is sometimes unrecognizable as a cello. [They'll hear] the raw energy that a single cello can create.

TW: Crazy things must've happened on your tour. Any stories jump to the front of your mind?

MH: I'd say one of the most surreal moments was playing at CBGB and looking out and seeing punks sitting next to people in suits, and having ... um ... I can't remember her first name, but Daughter of Satan was her last name, coming up to me afterwards and telling me, "Music is music. Great music is great music." She was happy to experience the [Bach] cello suites in that context. And the first time playing at the Tractor Tavern in Seattle was really quite something, when people were actually howling and whistling like a jazz concert. That took me by surprise.

TW: At the age of 13 you replaced your teacher, the legendary American cellist Leonard Rose, at short notice for a performance of Schubert's two-cello quintet at Carnegie Hall, along with Isaac Stern and Pinchas Zukerman. What the hell did that feel like?

MH: Well, I was very honored to be asked, and one of my cello idols, Rostropovich, was playing as well. The only thing was that I'd learned the second cello part, not the first. Rostropovich was insistent that I play the first. So I spent all night practicing my part, which I'd never played before. I was too nervous and focused to really know what was going on. In fact, I think Isaac Stern broke a string and I had no idea. They were all on the floor laughing at the end because I hadn't noticed what was going on. I was just glued to my music, making sure I didn't get lost.

TW: Ever play any reggae on the cello?

MH: Reggae, why reggae? I love reggae. That's interesting. I've never considered it. I've played a lot of different kind of genres, and the CD (Anthem) has a pretty wide range of music. Golijov is kind of inspired by Piazzolla so you have tango influence, and then you have Sanford's piece being influenced by John Coltrane's A Love Supreme; you've got Twining's "9:11 Blues," a microtonal blues piece. A lot of American vernaculars are looked at through the lens of the cello, but no, never reggae. Have you ever heard of a cello in reggae? It sounds cool. Why not?

TW: Why do you have that particular cello?

MH: When I discovered it in London, I didn't fall in love with it at first sight, but there was something about the sound that really grabbed me. I was playing another Gofriller, the one that belonged to Pablo Casals. That Gofriller was too small for me; it was cut down for him. This one reminded me of that, but larger. It's been my companion ever since. Something about the quality of the sound, the richness and darkness of it.

TW: When you're performing some difficult portion of a master's work, and you're "on," doing it flawlessly, what does that feel like?

MH: Well, like nothing else. It's overwhelming to the point that you can sometimes lose yourself in the music and you don't know what just happened. It's wonderful to have that creative control. When you're molding music, and it's coming out the way you hear it in your head, and you can communicate that to an audience--that's why I do this.

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