From The Morning Call, Bethlehem PA

From The Morning Call, Bethlehem PA

Classical close-up
Small folk venues give cellist a new perspective
By Judith Green
Special to the Morning Call, Bethlehem PA

May 24, 2003

For an amazing experience, hope that cellist Matt Haimovitz gives an encore when he plays Thursday at Godfrey Daniels. His transcription of Jimi Hendrix' famous Woodstock riff on the National Anthem is so like the original that you can't tell the difference. And on a cello, no less. It's scary.

Wait a minute, you might be saying. Could I have read cello and Godfrey Daniels in the same paragraph?

Yes. Haimovitz, a genuine classical cellist, brings not only himself but also a classical string quartet, the Miro, to the intimate coffeehouse. And they're going to play the lovely quintet for cello and strings by Schubert. In a venue better known for live ballads and blues, husky voices and acoustic guitars. And then at one in Philadelphia and one in Pittsburgh.

''It all started when I recorded the six suites in 2000,'' Haimovitz says from his home in Northampton, Mass., referring to works for unaccompanied cello by J.S. Bach. He says he played all six in a single evening in Schvetzingen, Germany, to commemorate the 250th anniversary of Bach's death, and was overwhelmed by the experience: the ''incredible evolution'' of playing them in one concert.

After that, ''I was thinking about where to tour, and I wanted to play in more intimate spaces. And when you play all six suites in one evening, it's kind of a long sit, so I wanted people to be comfortable and relaxed.''

So he thought about alternative music venues. And the first one was right in his own back yard: the Iron Horse in Northampton, a music hall whose upcoming shows include surfer Dick Dale, jazzman Wynton Marsalis and the Canadian alt rock band Cowboy Junkies.

''The response was electric,'' says the 32-year-old Israeli native. ''And I realized there was a need around the country and in the classical world for this.''

Since then, he's taken the Bach suites to CBGB in New York; the Ram's Head Tavern in Annapolis, Md.; the Prism in Charlottesville, Va., and the Tractor Tavern in Seattle.

This ''Listening Room'' tour allows people to hear Haimovitz in spaces designed for a different kind of listening than the concert hall. When audience and performer share the same space, music is heard in a different way - a way that erodes the elitist reputation of concert music.

''Godfrey's is a music listening room, and Godfrey's audience is one that likes to listen,'' says Mike Space, who runs the South Bethlehem club. He describes it as a perfect space, physically and acoustically. ''It seats 100, and no one is more than 20 feet, max, from the stage. We won't even be using the sound system for it. We won't have to.''

Haimovitz says he didn't know anything about the venues he's playing in. All he knew is that he wanted to play in spaces where ''folk singers I admire'' had played. When he went looking for a booking agent, he was fortunate to find Jaime' Campbell Morton, a singer-songwriter who had stopped playing clubs for a while in order to raise a child. In addition to knowing venues, she came from an ''agenting'' background.

''My grandfather used to manage Jerry Lewis and produce shows in the Catskills. He was a comedian, as well, and kept company with Buddy Hackett; he knew Sammy Davis Jr., Red Buttons and Larry King,'' she says

But playing Bach in pubs and coffeehouses? Well, as audience members at the just-concluded Bethlehem Bach Festival know, Bach had his pub-and-coffeehouse side. According to Bach scholar Otto Bettmann, he led an ensemble in a tavern in Leipzig in the 1730s, where people could ''relax, drink beer, smoke, and listen to pleasant music.'' And he wrote the ''Coffee Cantata'' as a gentle joke, twitting those bourgeois parents who feared the drink would turn their sons into good-for-nothings and their daughters into wantons.

Though short-lived, Franz Peter Schubert (NULL7-1828) also liked the cafs and pubs of his native Vienna. The ''Schubertiades'' - chamber music evenings at the homes of his friends - were occasions for schnapps and streusel as well as songs and sonatas. So it made sense to Haimovitz to choose the cello quintet for his second venture into non-traditional territory.

It also gives him and the Mirò String Quartet a lot of places, with varying acoustics and in front of various audiences, to rehearse the quintet before committing it to CD next year.

Haimovitz is long familiar with the quintet. At age 13, he replaced his Juilliard teacher, Leonard Rose, at a moment's notice for a performance at Carnegie Hall, joining Isaac Stern, Mstislav Rostropovich, Shlomo Mintz and Pinchas Zukerman. This performance was followed by a personal invitation from Stern to join him, Cho-Liang Lin, Jaime Laredo, Michael Tree and Yo-Yo Ma in both Brahms Sextets at Tanglewood and Carnegie Hall.

The Schubert, a 50-minute work, is the second half of this program. As of two weeks ago, when Haimovitz was interviewed, the first half had not been set: ''Maybe some Bach, maybe some work I'm going to be recording.''

These would be from a forthcoming CD of works written for the cellist by nine living American composers. ''It's very patriotic these days to do American music,'' he says. These include Osvaldo Golijov (Argentine but living in the United States), Steve Mackey from Princeton University, Augusta Reade Thomas, Todd Machover and Luna Pearl Woolf, who is Haimovitz' wife.

Whatever the repertory, though, concert-hall formality will be checked at the door. Haimovitz uses the Listening Room gigs to talk with his audiences, about anything and everything. ''It took me some time to get used to it,'' he admits, but he soon grew to like it. ''The barrier between me and my audience is really broken down.''

This doesn't mean music appreciation lessons. ''It depends on the chemistry in the room. Mostly the audience wants to know what I'm thinking and feeling. Sometimes I just talk about my day. But one night there was an older gent following the score, who couldn't find a seat, so he came right up to the stage and we talked about his edition.''

With any luck, the program may end with that signature work of Jimi Hendrix.

''I was listening to the Woodstock recording,'' Haimovitz says. ''It's in exactly the same key . And I discovered that all the distortion effects could be done acoustically. I thought it would take like a week to transcribe it - and it took like an hour.''

Judith Green is a freelance writer.

Jodi Duckett,

Arts and Entertainment Editor


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