The cutting-edge cellist finds himself returning back to Bach

It’s 7:30 on a balmy spring weeknight at Crown Station Pub in Charlotte, North Carolina, and the intimate club is filling with people finding seats and ordering beer. All attention focuses on the low riser at the end of the bar, where instead of the pub’s usual bill of folk or rock musicians, solo cellist Matt Haimovitz is seated. Seeming to merge with his instrument, Haimovitz skates his bow across the 1710 Goffriller’s strings as the warm, mellifluous tones of J. S.  Bach’s Suite No. 2 in D minor radiates from the stage and envelops the rapt audience.

Using Bach’s Six Suites for Unaccompanied Cello as his vehicle, Haimovitz, 44, pioneered bringing classical music out of the concert halls and into clubs back in 2000. Now, Haimovitz is going back to the barrooms, and the Bach, that earned him notoriety 15 years ago.

“There’s such a rich, complete story spread over Bach’s six suites,” Haimovitz says. “The complexity of some of these movements is unbelievable. If you are able to keep track of them, it’s dizzying. I don’t think any drug can match that.”

Dressed in crisp black trousers, shirt, and suspenders, Haimovitz sits at a picnic table on the pub’s back patio, his Goffriller, and a borrowed 1750 cello piccolo, close by. He describes his lifelong fascination with the suites, the new preludes he has commissioned and recorded, and how his passion for the pieces took his career in an unexpected direction, drawing him deeper into the music that shapes his life.

A prodigy born in Bat Yam, Israel, and raised in Palo Alto, California, Haimovitz debuted as a soloist on Saint-Saens’ Cello Concerto No. 1 with Zubin Mehta and the Israel Philharmonic when he was just 13. While still a teenager, he signed an exclusive recording contract with Deutsche Grammophon, and seemed set on a career as a concert cellist. But the siren song of Bach’s solo cello suites always beckoned.

“My relationship with these pieces has been complex,” Haimovitz says. “For ten years, I didn’t want to play them because I was so intimidated by them. There were so many approaches to them I didn’t know where to begin.”

Instead, he played solo cello works by such 20th-century composers as Ligeti, Crumb, and Berio, trying “to get close to the compositional process.” Slowly Haimovitz made his way back to Bach, but not before he parted with his record company. “Deutsche Grammophon had signed me as this young kid who could play a Dvořák concerto with the Berlin Philharmonic,” he explains, “but I did a series of recordings they were hot and cold about—solo contemporary work by Britten and Reger.”

Haimovitz’s contract with his label ran out in 2000, a year that was to prove a watershed for him.

“I revisited the suites and came to this very personal interpretation,” he says.

Matt Haimovitz

Haimovitz concentrated on “putting a human face to Bach,” and when he debuted the suites in Germany as part of the Bach Year 2000 celebration, they were well-received. With that vote of confidence, Haimovitz and his wife, composer Luna Pearl Woolf, adopted a grassroots approach to his career and founded Oxingale Records. They decided to launch their label with the Bach Suites.

There was just one catch—nobody wanted them. “I went to my manager and said I just recorded these cello suites, and I’d like to play them—a lot,” he recalls. “I was told to forget about it. There was no market for solo cellists.”

Rather than hang up his bow, Haimovitz devised a revolutionary way to market classical music. It was born of necessity—and geography.

At the time, Haimovitz was a faculty member at the University of Massachusetts in Amherst. Living in western Massachusetts, the self-styled “classical-music nerd” was exposed to folk and pop singer/songwriters for the first time. He liked what he heard, and he became familiar with the kind of venues that booked his favorite artists.

Haimovitz kicked off his Bach Listening-Room Tour of clubs and coffeehouses at the Iron Horse Music Hall in Northampton, Massachusetts. He booked the gig himself. “I called the promoter and said, ‘I can guarantee that my students and family will come, so at least you’ll sell some beer.’”

The show sold out, and the club had to turn away people at the door. Haimovitz remembers the atmosphere in the room as “electric.”

He realized there was a need for a direct connection to classical music across the country. It was, he says, “time to change the routine, for performers to engage their audience and not be afraid to entertain.”

The tour of relaxed, informal performance spaces grew organically and picked up steam. Too busy playing to schedule gigs, Haimovitz hired a booking agent. His experiment in making classical music accessible culminated in 2003, with a show at New York’s CBGB, ground zero for America’s 1970s punk-rock explosion. It was the “least likely place to find a solo cellist in New York,” Haimovitz says, so he felt he had to play there.

“Describing the club as a hole in the wall is being kind,” says Haimovitz, laughing. He recalls that the riser was so high that he worried he might not be able to get his cello onstage.

Some of Haimovitz’s classical peers were convinced he’d gone off the deep end with his Listening-Room Tour, and they refused to engage him for more traditional programs. Yet many were taking note, says Haimovitz, citing classical bookings today at clubs like New York’s Poisson Rouge and Joe’s Pub, as well as the emergence of classical-fusion artists like ETHEL and Break of Reality.

Does Haimovitz feel vindicated now that others have followed in his footsteps?

“Yes and no,” he says. “From the beginning, I was seeing this long-term.”

Playing intimate venues “is not something I was going to do and then move on to the next thing,” he adds. “I love the direct contact with the audience. Through playing these kinds of venues, I’ve become addicted to that contact.” Playing small clubs became an integral part of Haimovitz’s musical life. That’s one reason he’s returning this year to intimate spaces like Crown Station, but there’s another. “I’m getting music ready to record the six Bach suites again [released in November], and I want to try out new ideas in front of the public. That’s the only way to go. I tell my students, one performance is worth ten lessons.”

Matt Haimovitz

Haimovitz, currently a Montreal resident, mentors a studio of young cellists at McGill University’s Schulich School of Music. He advises his charges that “the worst thing you can do is to work something out in the recording studio. You work it out in public. Jump off that cliff.”

In stepping off the precipice, Haimovitz brings the suites as his parachute. But what brought him back to Bach? “A couple of years ago I heard my older recordings [of the suites] and I thought, ‘I don’t recognize that cellist.’ I decided it’s time to revisit them, approach them from a new perspective and re-record them,” he says.

In the meantime, Haimovitz pitched a collaboration on Beethoven’s Cello Sonata No. 3 in A major, Op. 69, alongside two Op. 70 trios, to McGill faculty colleague and fortepianist Tom Beghin. “I always thought the trios and Sonata Op. 69 were a transformative trilogy in Beethoven’s output,” Haimovitz says.

Beghin agreed on the condition that Haimovitz switch to period strings and tuning. Steel strings would drown out the fortepiano, which could tune no higher than 430 without cracking the soundboard, Haimovitz says.

“I tuned to 430, where A is 430, and I changed my cello strings to ox gut,” he says. “It was a revelation to experience a balance between the cello and fortepiano that was much more transparent and less powerful. I simply didn’t have to fight it, the way a cello normally has to project over a Steinway grand.”

Old proved to be gold, as the experiment with strings and tunings from Beethoven’s era led to Haimovitz’s dazzling collaboration with fortepianist Christopher O’Riley, on the 2015 Pentatone/Oxingale release Beethoven, Period.

Haimovitz thought, why not apply the same approach to his beloved Bach?

“I started playing my Goffriller on gut strings and tuning down to 415,” the standard for the Baroque era, where A equals 415, which “sounds like B major. It’s even lower than the Beethoven tuning.”

The result was so resonant that Haimovitz knew he had to play and record Bach “old school.” It was a leap of faith for Haimovitz, who never took an overly reverent approach to the Baroque masters.

“If you go back to Baroque times, they were much crazier than we are now in terms of the kinds of affect, effects, and the boldness of the musical ideas,” he says. “Bach was the rock star of his time and he was improvising like crazy. The idea that you’ve got to be metronomic [or] academic about it never made sense to me.”

That said, “Using the [period] tools really changes the way the music reads and the way it speaks.” Haimovitz works closely with the manuscript transcribed by Bach’s second wife, Anna Magdalena, which he plays from an iPad mounted onstage.

“It’s the closest we have to the original,” he says.

Convinced that his next recording had to be on Baroque cello, Haimovitz cast about for a five-string cello piccolo, an instrument essential for playing Bach’s Cello Suite No. 6 in D major.

Bach wasn’t satisfied with what he’d done before, says Haimovitz, so with the Sixth Suite he embraced new technology with the cello piccolo, expanding the range of both the instrument and the player’s virtuosity.

“Playing on cello piccolo changes everything,” he says. “I always gravitated to the Fifth Suite, but now with the cello piccolo, the Sixth Suite has become so wonderful. I relish it.”

Haimovitz adds there is much to savor in all six suites, which connect with him on many levels. “When you deal with all the details—the rhetoric, the pulse, the structure, the harmonies, and the voicing—[you find] there is a story being told, and it’s an incredible human story.”

Haimovitz says he’s passionate about Bach’s music, “but if I’m passionate about it in the practice room on my own, who cares? It’s dead notes on a page until you bring it to life.”

Given his commitment to connecting with his audience, Haimovitz chose a unique way to share this passion with his listeners. He has commissioned preludes to the Six Solo Suites, created by contemporary composers from diverse backgrounds and disciplines. “It’s a way to bring these suites into the 21st century,” he says, “to have living, breathing composers grapple with the materials, Bach’s musical building blocks, and find their own take on it.”

The six composers bringing contemporary vitality to Bach are Philip Glass, Luna Pearl Woolf, Du Yun, Vijay Iyer, Roberto Sierra, and Mohammed Fairouz. Haimovitz has encouraged them to draw on folk melodies, just as Bach did in his day. As we spoke, the pieces were still being written, and Haimovitz’s excitement and anticipation is contagious.

He’s asked his friend and collaborator Philip Glass to respond to the First Suite with an opening prelude. “Philip’s Buddhist and he’s been influenced by Indian modes and rhythms for a long time,” Haimovitz says. “He started his career as an assistant to Ravi Shankar. In fact, he now publishes all of Shankar’s works.”

Haimovitz suspects that Glass’ Indian connection will come through in his overture. Meanwhile, Chinese-born multi-instrumentalist Du Yun is composing the prelude to the Second Suite. She loves the pathos and the austerity of [the suite],” he explains. “She’s thinking about chant in various cultures, starting with a Gregorian chant but going into Tibetan prayer and [even] more remote.”

The opening to the Third Suite is the purview of pianist and bandleader Vijay Iyer. “Vijay is immersed in improvisation and jazz,” he says. “I feel like the opening prelude of the C major suite [can be a] great jam. Vijay is interested in what I am going to bring to it improvisationally.”

Before talking about the preludes project with Roberto Sierra, Haimovitz and the Puerto Rican born composer discussed Sierra’s close relationship with cellist Pablo Casals, who rediscovered the Bach Solo Cello Suites. “Roberto used to accompany Casals, so he has a deep connection with the cello,” he says. “He has Spanish in his blood, so he may go in a Latin direction. I just felt he was a good fit [for the Fourth Suite].”

Haimovitz’s intuition also told him that 29-year-old Arab-American composer Mohammed Fairouz would be the ideal choice for the Fifth Suite. “He wanted the First Suite originally, and I said, ‘Please look at the Fifth Suite. When he revisited the Fifth Suite, he said, ‘Yeah you’re right. Let me do this.’ I can hear Middle Eastern influences at the beginning of that sarabande,” Haimovitz says. “I think if Bach could have, he would have written that microtonally.”

For the prelude to the Sixth Suite, Haimovitz turned to his wife, Luna Pearl Woolf. “She’s really intrigued by the cello piccolo, the virtuosity of it,” he notes. “She’s fascinated by the five strings.” To Haimovitz, it makes sense that Woolf would tackle the technically challenging Sixth Suite, “since she knows my playing better than anyone.”

With that comment, he turns his attention to the night’s performance. “Anybody ready for some Bach?” Haimovitz says, stepping onstage at the packed Charlotte pub.

He tells the audience how his yellow-brown ox-gut strings came fresh from the Toro brothers’ Italian workshop “next door to the slaughterhouse,” and says that the Baroque era was “more human,” and not standardized.

“There were different lengths of bows, and each town could have its own tuning,” he says. Then, from the stage, he orders a beer, “something local.”

With Magdalena’s score before him, Haimovitz starts playing. Instantly he seems transported to a mysterious realm. The audience grows hushed as it’s gently pulled along. Like a human voice, the cello’s tone is rich and burnished. On the anguished Second Suite in D minor, written after Bach had lost his first wife, an upwelling of turmoil spirals out from Haimovitz’s instrument. The cello sounds alive, wolfish at times. At others, the instrument seems to sigh, mimicking Haimovitz’s breath control as he coaxes sounds from it. The evening’s program consists of Suites Three, Two, and Six, with an encore drawn from the opening of the First Suite. “This is what Bach envisioned for the darker Sixth Suite,” Haimovitz says as he switches to the smaller cello piccolo. “It has C, D, G, and A like the cello, with the addition of an E string.” The Sixth Suite is longer than the others. “See you in 35 minutes,” he says. Soon, through intense concentration, he is somewhere else, with the attentive crowd in tow. As I watch, I recall Haimovitz’s description of the power, challenges, and rewards of the suites.

“There’s such a complete story over the six suites, and you have to keep track of so many layers,” he had said. “The challenge is that it goes by quickly. You bring the music to life in the moment with each choice you make. And each choice you make affects the next choice. Engaging with this music below the surface, at its richest and deepest, I truly believe that is a key to the next dimension.

“It’s something that transcends time.”

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