Virtuoso cellist Matt Haimovitz has made a career of bringing classical music to people who don't hear it much. In the mid-'90s, having played as soloist with major orchestras in venues like Carnegie Hall, the Israeli-born, American-raised musician got frustrated with the narrowness of classical-music culture and the kind of career typically available to classical musicians. It especially bothered him to see almost no one his age — mid 20s at the time — in the concert halls. So he launched a solo tour, playing venues most classical musicians would never consider. He took Bach on the road — to record stores, bars and clubs, including CBGB.
"I find people are great listeners in these places — relaxed, eating, drinking, with the music right there in front of them," he says. "The minute you take a cello out in these venues, people just stop and listen. I still love going to my favorite halls — the Concertgebouw, Carnegie Hall. But it was really a matter of not seeing my generation out there and wanting to grow the audience."
He has continued along those lines, with a new CD called Figment, which presents works for cello and electronics by a range of contemporary composers, including his wife Luna Pearl Woolf, Elliott Carter and Gilles Tremblay. It opens with "Figlude," a "Young Person's Guide to the Orchestra"-style introduction to the cello, complete with narration, layered with beats and remixed by Ottawa-based hip-hop artist Socalled (Josh Dolgin).
"Josh is a friend of mine," says Haimovitz. "I told him what I was working on. I went to his basement apartment. He's got stacks and stacks of LPs and gear, and I played him the Elliott Carter piece, and at first he looked at me like I was nuts. But I wanted to disarm the listener before he gets into the Carter, and he trusted me and made this little hip-hop tune."
Last week, Haimovitz continued touring in support of Figments, playing small venues like Sam Bond's Garage in Eugene, Oregon, one of his favorite places to perform. "It's a former garage, converted into a vegan coffee house that mostly hosts folk bands and singer-songwriters," he say. "It's sort of my ideal audience. I started playing there when I was touring the Bach cello suites. Now when I announce that I'm going to play something by Ligeti, they go crazy."
That points to another of Haimovitz's frustrations with standard classical programming: Orchestras choose pieces conservatively, concerned that adventurous choices will hurt ticket sales. They won't schedule a work by Elliott Carter, says Haimovitz, because "no one will come." By handling his own bookings and playing in non-traditional venues, he can play what he wants or what he thinks the audience wants.
Additionally, orchestras commonly book soloists and their music two and three years ahead of time, which he says prevents the musician from following instincts and moods.
"The idea that I know exactly what I'll be doing three years from now ... " he says before pausing, as if the idea speaks for itself.
This week, with CityMusic Cleveland, Haimovitz has a foot in both the traditional classical and his more adventurous world. He's playing in traditional concert format, as soloist in the first Shostakovich cello concerto, but he's doing it with an orchestra that brings classical music into neighborhoods for free, to attract people who don't make up the usual classical concert audience. Daniel Rachev conducts the program, which also includes Webern's arrangement of Schubert's German Dances and Mozart's Symphony No. 40.
"The Shostakovich concerto is a wonderful piece," says Haimovitz. "It has a straightforward classical form, very motoric use of rhythm, a commentary on factory life."
It's also a piece that seems to speak to the cellist's frustrations with the classical music "system." The third movement is an epic cadenza where the solo voice is surrounded by the orchestra's silence. "The overbearing feeling of having all these people onstage — you're all by yourself with all these people onstage with you — the silence is like the accompaniment," says Haimovitz. "It's a really powerful metaphor for the idea that you have to present yourself in community in a certain way."