Cellist Matt Haimovitz has established himself as one of classical music’s most adventurous artists, equally at ease playing the masterworks for his instrument in solo, chamber, and concerto performances in leading concert halls as he is bringing classical music to new listeners in surprising new venues. A teacher, a record label entrepreneur, and a celebrated performer, Haimovitz manifests his love of music not only in the seriousness with which he approaches his work but also with his warm demeanor and the natural expressiveness of his playing.
Haimovitz has made headlines with his path-breaking performances of Bach’s 6 Suites for Cello Solo. He struck a nerve in the music world with his unprecedented Bach “Listening-Room” Tour, taking Bach’s beloved cello suites out of the concert hall and performing them in intimate venues across the U.S., Canada, and the U.K., to great acclaim. The tour has been profiled on NPR’s ‘Performance Today’ and PRI’s ‘The World,’ as well as in The New York Times, The New Yorker, The Los Angeles Times, The Chicago Tribune, The Boston Globe, The Seattle Times, and The Philadelphia Inquirer. Haimovitz was the first classical artist to play at New York’s infamous CBGB club, in a performance that was filmed by ABC News for its half-hour feature, ‘Nightline UpClose.’
Since his 1984 debut with the Israel Philharmonic and Zubin Mehta, Haimovitz has performed with such conductors as James Levine, Daniel Barenboim, Semyon Bychkov, Myung-Whun Chung, Charles Dutoit, Sir Neville Marriner, Seiji Ozawa, Giuseppe Sinopoli, Leonard Slatkin, Michael Tilson Thomas, and David Zinman. He has appeared in North America with many of the great symphonies and philharmonics, including Boston, Chicago, Cleveland, Los Angeles, Montreal, New York, Philadelphia, and San Francisco, and internationally with the Berlin Philharmonic, the Orchestre de Paris, the Philharmonia Orchestra of London, the Orchestre de la Suisse Romande, the Radio Orchestras of Frankfurt, Cologne, Leipzig and Hanover, the Israel Philharmonic, the New Japan Philharmonic, the Beijing Opera Orchestra, and many others.
Recording is an integral part of Haimovitz’s musical life. His Bach 6 Suites for Cello Solo on Oxingale Records was nominated for an INDIE AWARD by the AFIM and won Just Plain Folks Award for Best Classical Recording. It was chosen as a “Top Pick” by U.S. News & World Report and featured in Billboard, Gramophone, The New Criterion, and other publications. Also nominated for the INDIE AWARD, The Rose Album (Oxingale) features Haimovitz, pianist Itamar Golan and guests performing works by Schubert, Schumann, Chopin, Paganini, and Robert Stern as well David Popper’s Requiem for Three Cellos and Piano. In 2003, Oxingale Records, the label Haimovitz formed with composer Luna Pearl Woolf, signed an exclusive contract with Artemis Records to collaborate on future projects and past releases including ANTHEM, Hyperstring Trilogy and Lemons Descending. Prior to establishing Oxingale Records, Matt Haimovitz’s ten-year exclusive relationship with the Deutsche Grammophon label (DGG) resulted in six acclaimed recordings. His 1989 debut recording of Saint-Saëns, Bruch, and Lalo with James Levine and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra was lauded by Gramophone Magazine as heralding “the arrival of a new star in the cello firmament.”
Born in Israel, Haimovitz has been honored with the Avery Fisher Career Grant (1986) the Grand Prix du Disque (1991) and Diapason d’Or (1991), the Harvard’s Louis Sudler Prize (1996) and is the first cellist to receive the prestigious Premio Internazionale “Accademia Musicale Chigiana” (1999). He has been featured in numerous publications, including Newsweek, The New Yorker, People, Connoisseur, Gramophone, Strings and Strad magazines, and has been the subject of full-length televised features on CBS’ “Sunday Morning with Charles Kuralt” and Germany’s ZDF, and has appeared on PBS’ “Salute to the Arts,” and “Nova.”
Alongside his performing and recording activities, Matt Haimovitz is committed to teaching. He heads the cello program at the University of Massachusetts (Amherst) and frequently teaches master classes during his travels. Haimovitz plays a 1710 Matteo Gofriller cello.
TJ: You studied with Irene Sharp for about a year when you were eight years old. You must have lived in California.
MH: I was born in Israel, but then we moved to Palo Alto in 1975, right at the beginning of the Silicon Valley boom, my father being an engineer. My mother is a pianist, so she nurtured my interest in music by taking me to concerts. When I was seven years old, I heard a cello for the first time and I was immediately intrigued, the cello seemed so exotic. Irene Sharp was the teacher in Palo Alto.
Irene Sharp had studied with Margaret Rowell, so she had a wonderfully healthy and holistic approach to the cello. With Irene, the cello was considered an extension of the body, like another organ instead of a separate entity. She would have me hug my cello, which is one of Rowell’s famous tricks for teaching a child how to hold a cello. She used other wonderful analogies as well, such as a bird’s wing, which is an image that helps keep the left arm from drooping while maintaining its flexibility. This kind of imagery is wonderful for sparking a young person’s imagination, in addition to producing cellists who play with a very natural posture.
TJ: You then went to Gabor Rejto a couple of years later.
MH: Rejto was a Hungarian cellist and well-known pedagogue who had studied with Pablo Casals, which greatly intrigued me. His left-hand technique was reminiscent of Casals’, where each note was clearly articulated with a strong but tension-free left hand; every note spoke. He ended up being the perfect next teacher for me because I was already becoming more interested in musical expression than technique, especially in pieces like the Bach Suites, which had a special significance for him because of his time with Casals. I would play two movements of Bach every day and bring this music to the lessons. He talked a lot about phrasing and letting the music breathe, and treating the cello as if it were a human voice. We became very close, even though I was only nine years old. He was like a grandfather to me.
TJ: It sounds like he spent most of the time talking about musical issues with you. I would think that a nine-year-old would need some technical help too.
MH: I certainly did. I was more of an instinctive player, and I had no idea what I was doing. Leonard Rose and Ron Leonard helped to fill in the gaps later.
TJ: When did Itzhak Perlman come into your life?
MH: He is the one that suggested I play for Leonard Rose. I was studying with Gabor Rejto at the Santa Barbara Music Academy of the West, and he had me play the Frescobaldi Toccata in a master class. Perlman happened to be in the audience and came up to me afterwards, inviting me to visit him the next day. I played for him some more, and he took a very strong interest in me. Our relationship developed, and he would call to see how I was doing whenever he toured on the West Coast. At some point he sat down with my parents and I and recommended that I play for Leonard Rose. And that’s exactly what we did. We went to New York in 1981 and I ended up playing for Rose for a few hours.
It was extraordinary just to be sitting in the lobby of Juilliard as an 11-year-old. I had seen Rose on the covers of LP’s for years and to have him come in, perfectly dressed in his suit and tie, is a memory that’s still vividly etched in my mind. He was this larger than life figure for me, and there he was, being extremely warm and kind. When I finished one piece, he’d ask, “What else do you have for me?” He was very unintimidating at that first audition, although I must say I was nervous for all of the subsequent lessons. He loved to teach and he loved young talent. There was something about teaching that brought out the best in him.
He sat down with my parents after my audition and said that he wanted to teach me. He preferred that they move with me to New York. He expressed such a strong interest in me that my parents decided to go for it.
From the first lesson, Leonard Rose focused on the art of the bow arm. After I played the Schubert Arpeggione Sonata, he politely closed my music, set it aside, and had me work on open strings for the next three or four weeks. This was a real challenge for me because I wasn’t the kind of kid that could work on a single passage for several hours each day. But I knew that I wanted the necessary tools to fully express myself, so I was willing to do it.
TJ: Did Leonard Rose work with you on tone production?
MH: Definitely. He had one of the most glorious cello sounds ever, and producing a beautiful tone was an emphasis in his teaching, no matter what was being played, whether scales, etudes, or pieces. In those first few weeks, he worked a lot on developing my understanding of the basic bow stroke. He had worked closely with Ivan Galamian, so he had bow technique down to a science. He talked about varying the placement of the bow relative to the bridge, how much weight to put into the bow, varying bow speed, and proper bow distribution. All these factors have to be dealt with in order to produce a beautiful tone.
TJ: One of my former teachers, Toby Saks, is a former student of Leonard Rose. She had me practice a collé bow stroke, in which you bow back and forth in short strokes using only a raise-lower finger motion. It’s sort of a stand-in-place “paintbrush” finger motion. Did she get this exercise from Leonard Rose?
MH: Yes. He had me do that too. It trains your fingers to be supple and flexible and prepares you for the full paintbrush motion later.
TJ: I saw a movie of Leonard Rose playing the Rococo Variations. He must have been in his 30’s at the time. I didn’t see much of a paintbrush motion in his bow hand.
MH: I don’t know that video, but he did have an incredibly beautiful bow arm and hand motion when I studied with him. His fingers were very flexible and he could do an extraordinary legato anywhere in the bow. I think his technique was the result of incredibly refined musical taste. I now believe that if you listen to yourself carefully, certain techniques come naturally if you’re not tense.
TJ: Did Leonard Rose have you practice Popper etudes and scales?
MH: Popper etudes were a part of every lesson with him. He would have us memorize them, three lines each day, so that by the end of the week, we’d have the entire etude memorized. He really got a kick out of it when a student played a Popper etude well. He’d go into the hallway and bring in whoever happened to be walking by, saying, “Hey, come listen to this!” He’d never do that for a piece, just Popper etudes.
I had a scale routine that I would do as I felt necessary, twenty or thirty minutes per day. If I were working on a piece and having trouble with a certain bowing, for example, I would apply it to a four-octave scale. I have found that when you know the fingerings, you can best work on certain bow techniques without having to worry about the notes. Scales are great for getting your ear acclimated to what you really sound like when you mix them with other tasks. Otherwise, you can easily lapse into mindless scale practice, which is a waste of time.
TJ: How much did you practice each day, on average?
MH: I practiced three to four hours each day. I would improvise a little bit at first every morning. I found that doing so was much better than launching into an intense etude or piece right away. Having a little creative fun was a great way to relax into the instrument and become one with it. Otherwise, I would get too fixated on notes and other technical aspects of cello playing.
TJ: How long did you study with Leonard Rose?
MH: I had studied with him for three years when he passed away in 1984. I was 13 years old at the time.
Following his death, others continued to mentor me, including Ron Leonard, Yo-Yo Ma, and Itzhak Perlman. Rose had asked Yo-Yo to watch over me before he died, so I played for him once in awhile and we hung out together, having lots of intense philosophical discussions. Ron Leonard did most of the teaching from a cellistic standpoint, while Itzhak Perlman would listen to me from time to time and offer some musical alternatives.
TJ: Was Yo-Yo Ma in your life before Leonard Rose died?
MH: I met Yo-Yo just before Rose died. Rose invited Yo-Yo and I to play on his 65th birthday celebration concert at the 92nd Street Y in New York City, and that’s when I first met Yo-Yo. We all played some Scott Joplin, and the Popper Requiem, and they did some duos. Rose was diagnosed with cancer later that week.
TJ: It must have been devastating when Leonard Rose died.
MH: It was a tragic and unexpected loss. As a teenager, it was difficult to cope with the loss of someone so close, but he instilled in me a sense that everything would be ok and that I had to listen to my own personal destiny. Now, it is remarkable to me that each one of Rose’s students sounds so different and follows a unique career path.
TJ: Did Ron Leonard, former principal cellist of the Los Angeles Philharmonic and now professor at USC, basically pick up where Leonard Rose left off?
MH: When Rose passed away in 1984, Ron, who had been a Rose student himself, became my primary teacher and followed through with Rose’s ideas. I didn’t have lessons with him regularly, but I would have intense periods of lessons every two or three months. I would have daily lessons for a week at a time.
TJ: In tracing your sequence of teachers, you seemed to have had ideal training.
MH: I am very fortunate to have had great teachers early on. Irene Sharp provided a holistic, tension-free foundation. Gabor Rejto fanned the fire so that I got hooked on music and the cello. Then Leonard Rose and Ron Leonard channeled my passion into working harder on technical issues. I had great early training.
TJ: You made your first big splash in the music world in 1984 when you substituted for Leonard Rose in a performance of the Schubert C Major Cello Quintet in Carnegie Hall with Isaac Stern, Schlomo Mintz, Pinchas Zukerman, and Mstislav Rostropovich.
MH: Leonard Rose was sick and he recommended that I sub for him. He was going to play the second cello part, so I worked on it for a week or two before Rostropovich came to town. We were to play the piece after only one rehearsal, so I had to know my part. When Rostropovich arrived in New York, he called Stern and said that he wanted me to play the first cello part instead. This was not what I wanted to hear, since the concert was the next day. I told Isaac Stern my predicament, and he invited me to his place so that we could work on it. As you might expect, I practiced all night.
I don’t remember much of the concert, actually. Apparently, Stern broke a string and had to switch violins with Schlomo Mintz, but I was so focused on my part that I hadn’t noticed. The others got a real kick out of my obliviousness to the drama only a few feet away from me.
TJ: Were you intimidated by such an illustrious group of musicians?
MH: I didn’t really comprehend what was at stake at that concert. I was just very excited and honored to be playing with them. I’ve never been too nervous before performing, unless the conditions were particularly horrible. Generally speaking, I really enjoy playing for people, which is why I am willing to play in places ranging from clubs to concert halls. I really enjoy what I do for a living.
TJ: When did you start soloing with orchestras like the Berlin Philharmonic?
MH: Soon after the Schubert C Major concert, I auditioned for Zubin Mehta, and he invited me to play with the Israel Philharmonic. Then there was a cancellation for the New York Philharmonic and he invited me there too. My career took off at that point.
TJ: Did you enjoy the life of a soloist?
MH: I enjoyed it very much. But there came a point when I wanted to play repertoire other than the old standards. Unfortunately, it wasn’t easy finding promoters who were willing to program concerti like the Barber, Shostakovich Second, or the Lutoslawski. They were more interested in the Dvorak, Saint-Saëns, and Haydn concerti. After playing the Saint-Saëns a hundred times, I began questioning what I was doing. That’s when I took a turn in different direction. I realized that there are other aspects of music that are very important and I wanted to have the time to experiment and take risks.
TJ: Leonard Rose was not known for his love of contemporary music. Where did your interest come from?
MH: Leonard Rose hardly played a note of contemporary music.
My interest began during my first year at Princeton when I was 18 years old. I met composer Steven Mackey, who plays the electric guitar, and we improvised together. I hadn’t explored improvisation other than noodling around as warm-up before I met him, and I became almost obsessed with it that year. His piece, Rondo Variations, is on ANTHEM, my new album; it was the first truly contemporary piece I had played. It was an incredible revelation to have the composer right there to answer my questions. And even though his written instructions were very detailed, he still had plenty of comments on what I was doing. It really made me think about what composers of the past might say to me if they were here to listen to me play their works. This experience opened my mind to all sorts of music, including Jimi Hendrix, which I hadn’t listened to before. I was slowly making these musical discoveries and expanding my musical awareness.
TJ: Did you continue to tour while going to college?
MH: Yes, I toured extensively, which is why I took the next three years off from school. I couldn’t do both. I was the only student in class who hadn’t done the assigned reading, which was not fun. Three years later I transferred to Harvard and completed my liberal arts degree. I continued to perform, but I took a step back. I would do one big tour every semester, which was still difficult. Missing three weeks of school requires a lot of catching up. I would do my homework on the plane and in hotel rooms and fax my assignments to my professors.
TJ: You had a contract with Deutsche Grammophon (DG). I remember seeing your records in the 80’s and then I didn’t see them anymore. Did you stop recording?
MH: No, I continued to record but the recording industry started to go haywire, not to mention that I was making some fairly esoteric recordings, at least as far as DG was concerned. My first few recordings were of the standard concerti with the Chicago Symphony, but then I became interested in contemporary music and made three or four solo CD’s. My solo cello recordings weren’t widely distributed in the United States, but they could be found in other parts of the world. I didn’t record the Bach Suites back then because I was intimidated by the many recordings that were already out there, and by how many interpretative decisions had to be made. And then the “authentic instrument” movement came on strong and made us all re-think from scratch how Bach should be played. Through my experience with contemporary music, I became much more interested in trying to get inside the compositional process, and I wanted to approach the Bach Suites as if they were brand new works. My contemporary solo cello recordings were great preparation for recording the Bach Suites.
DG ran hot and cold with me, and they were changing as an organization. They had a new head every year or so during the 90’s, so nobody knew what direction they were going to take. One person would have an interest in doing another Beethoven Symphony cycle and the next guy would want to support contemporary composers like Pierre Boulez. Then the next guy would come in and want to record Mozart. It was hard to keep track.
They thought my project of recording contemporary cello music was interesting, but they didn’t take it seriously. This is a pity because some of these are of historical value now, like the first recording of Ligeti Cello Sonata. I also worked with Berio, Henze, Harbison, Davidovsky, and others. The sheet music for the Ligeti was published the week that I was recording my first solo album. I was so excited about his piece that we made a tape for him, just reading it through. We had finished recording my first album early, and we all went swimming in a lake near Salzburg. Ligeti tracked me down, phoned a few days later and said, “You know, I really like what you’re doing. I want you to record my piece.”
I continued to record twentieth century works, combining confirmed masterpieces like the Britten Suites and Kodaly Sonata with the works of other living composers. My last recording with DG came out in 1999. It’s called, “Portes Ouvertes” and includes several masterpieces, like the Debussy Sonata, Britten Sonata, Webern Drei Stucke, Reger Third Suite, and a small Britten piece. We did the Webern in one take, actually, which is my one recording where that occurred. The recording also has the Dutilleux Trois Strophes, which is an extraordinary piece. I was living in Paris at the time, and worked closely with Dutilleux.
When my contract with DG had expired, my wife, composer Luna Pearl Woolf, and I talked about how nice it would be to have more control over recording production. She had worked closely with me during my final two recordings with DG, so she was already on her way to being the great producer she is now. We started pursuing the idea of starting our own record company, and that’s when Oxingale Records was born.
TJ: Were you still concertizing during this time?
MH: Yes, but eighty percent of my concerts were in Europe. I had more struggles in the United States because I had started so young and had been labeled a “prodigy.” I found it difficult to make the transition in promoters’ eyes from ‘prodigy’ to ‘mature artist.’ My career started later in Europe, in my college years, so there was no transition to make. European audiences were more open to contemporary music as well. Now things have evened out.
TJ: Recently, you traveled around the United States, playing the Bach Suites in venues like the Tractor Tavern in Seattle as part of your “Bach Listening-Room Tour.” Where did this idea come from?
MH: I didn’t know of these venues so it’s been quite a journey for me in many ways.
When I recorded the Bach Cello Suites, I didn’t consider how I was going to promote it. I wanted to play them in public and share my personal vision of them, but I had difficulty finding support from my management. When I approached my agent about playing them in public, he basically laughed me out of the room. He felt that nobody would be able to convince a promoter to take a risk on a solo cellist. It was discouraging, but Luna and I figured that we ought to at least have a release party for the album, given how hard we worked on it.
We live in an area of Western Massachusetts where the folk music and the singer/songwriter scene is very rich. There is a wonderful venue, the Iron Horse Music Hall, where many folk singers and jazz artists began their careers. I called the Iron Horse’s promoter myself. He said that he used to have a Thursday night chamber music evening twenty or thirty years ago and that he’d consider presenting me, but he wasn’t sure how to market a classical music show these days. He ended up agreeing to present me if I would split the financial risk with him, which I did.
We went ahead with the concert and the local response was extraordinary. Literally hundreds of people were turned away at the door, and it’s a place that holds about 250 people. And to think that I had been told that there was no audience for the Bach Cello Suites! It was quite a shock to play in a venue like that. I remember playing the first Suite and becoming fixated on some uneaten French fries in front of me, and it wasn’t until the Courante or Sarabande that I got over it. But people really responded in a very honest and open way to the music, and something clicked. Perhaps the classical music world has become too stuffy and has scared people away. Obviously, the Tractor Tavern isn’t going to offer the same acoustic environment as Benaroya Hall, but maybe it can be more intimate, more real, in a way.
I ultimately realized that there is something special about the solo cello in these venues. And playing pieces like the Bach Suites in these places gives them a freshness and sense of authenticity that I haven’t experienced in concert halls. I have taken the Bach suites to somewhere around 80 venues over the last two years.
I’m now taking this to another level with my fifty-state ANTHEM Tour. It begins on September 11 at the Tractor Tavern in Seattle. I’ll revisit a few of the places I played during my Bach Listening-Room Tour, but this time the focus is on living American composers. This music is even more appropriate than Bach to these clubs. It’s too easy to forget that much of classical music’s tradition is groundbreaking. When Bach wrote his solo cello pieces, nothing like them had ever been written before. And imagine how shocking it must have been when Beethoven wrote his Opus 102 No. 2 Sonata with that fugue. Then there’s the riot that occurred when Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring was premiered. These composers weren’t as respectable in their day as we think of them now. Doing these tours really brings this fact home to me.
TJ: You don’t think to yourself, “Where has my career gone?” as you play in places like the Tractor Tavern? You used to play in venues like Carnegie Hall.
MH: Hey, hold on there, I still play the “soft seat” theaters! But seriously, believe it or not, the answer to your question is ‘no.’ It was pretty depressing watching how the classical music audiences were getting grayer and grayer and fewer and fewer as the years went by. There were times when I didn’t see a single young person. Here I was, only twenty-five years old, and I didn’t see any of my peers out there. Of course, I enjoy playing for people of all ages, but I wanted to reach younger generations too. It made me question why I was playing, and who I would be playing for when the older generations are gone.
Going into the clubs, where people feel more comfortable, makes the music more accessible. Sure, I have to work a little harder to build an audience than classical musicians did twenty or thirty years ago, but I really believe in the music I’m playing, and I think I’m doing what I need to do to reach them. I still love playing with great orchestras and in great halls, but at this point I wouldn’t trade that world for what I’m doing right now. I have found a sense of mission, and I believe that I am building an audience that will come hear me play in a concert hall someday soon.
TJ: Let’s talk about your Bach Suite recording on the Oxingale label. I get the impression that you were improvising your performance, in that you seemed to allow yourself to go with the moment, even if it resulted some agogic accents at times. Was this your approach when you made this recording?
MH: I do think of the Preludes as improvisatory. I’m okay with agogic accents, if they bring out what I want to hear, like a bass line or an interesting inner voice. I was trying to imagine Bach improvising his own Preludes as I played them.
TJ: When you repeat the Minuet I in the d minor Suite, you play the entire movement pizzicato. Where did you get this idea from?
MH: I realize that this is a bit radical, but there’s no indication in the manuscripts not to do it. The pizzicato idea arose out of a narrative that evolved for the second suite. I began to hear Minuet II as a kind of lullaby, and the return of Minuet I in pizzicato is more gentle and soothing. Learning that Bach’s wife died unexpectedly in 1720 — likely the year he composed the suites — and that they lost an infant child one year earlier, I thought this Suite could be an epitaph. Whether it is or not, though, I think I’ve always wanted to pizzicato some of these movements, especially the Fifth suite, which Bach also arranged for lute.
TJ: There seems to be a lot of rubato in your Bach Suites. I noticed it particularly in the d minor Prelude. I tend to associate this with a more romantic approach.
MH: I’d say that I’m more deeply influenced by the period instrument movement than the romantic players. I look at a piece like the E-flat Prelude with its endless series of eighth notes and consider it to be more of an approximation of what Bach imagined as he composed it. If he were writing music today, I wouldn’t be surprised if he’d write dotted eighth notes and sixteenth notes, perhaps quintuplets at times, or something much more intricate than straight eighth notes.
This reminds me of a work on my new ANTHEM CD, a tango piece by Osvaldo Golijov. He writes in rubato to such a degree that at first I couldn’t understand the rhythmic notation. He could have easily written the piece in the notational style of Bach — i.e. just eighth notes — and then added the instruction “a la tango” and it would have been clear. Through my experiences with contemporary composers, like Osvaldo, I have taken a fresh look at pieces like the Bach Cello Suites and have given myself permission to consider how I think they should be played instead of worrying about how others think they are supposed to be played. I’m sure Bach would have been happy to hear somebody play his music more spontaneously. And given that the Bach Suites are for solo cello, one needs to take time in certain areas and push the tempo forward in others in order to make the music breathe and be more intelligible. Glenn Gould used to have a wonderful way of determining tempi based on the counterpoint and what the human ear could actually hear. This seems like a good guideline because it takes the literal approach out of the performance and makes it more of a human-centered experience.
It seems to me that notion of authenticity, and the quest for the ideal performance as represented by the literal representation of the notes on the page, has nothing to do with the baroque sensibility. The music was written to move people, to make them dance, laugh, or cry. It was not merely an intellectual or technical exercise. So I was striving in my recording to put a human face on Bach and trying to get as close as I could to the affect and narrative of each piece in a personal way.
TJ: Have you experimented much with improvisation on stage?
MH: I have done some and I hope to do more as time goes on. At this point I’m playing with musicians of different backgrounds and just trying to connect with them musically. As one who has played written-down music for a lifetime, it’s a challenge to let go, but I’m working on it. Though not an improvisation project, I did do a crossover piece with jazz guitarist John McLaughlin on his new album which should come out in the fall. On my new ANTHEM album, I do include my arrangement of Jimi Hendrix’s “Star Spangled Banner,” as well as a taqsim-inspired solo improv on a Vespers tune, “Truth from Above.”
TJ: You recently released an album of music by Tod Machover, Hyperstring Trilogy. What is a hyperstring instrument, like a hypercello, for instance?
MH: It’s an instrument for which the performer wears a glove that is connected to the instrument and in turn is wired to a computer. The glove measures all the hand motions in the right hand and the fingerboard measures where you are on the fingerboard and what amount of pressure is being applied. This data is then translated into a computer program that generates computer sounds. It looks like a cross between an electric guitar and a cello.
Tod Machover’s Hyperstring Trilogy has three pieces, which were inspired by Dante’s Divine Comedy. The first piece, which I recorded, is for solo hypercello. The second piece is for hyperviola and small chamber orchestra, featuring Kim Kashkashian. The violist’s bow controls a taped voice part, so singing occurs in conjunction with whatever the bow is doing. The third piece is for hyperviolin and full orchestra, featuring Ani Kavafian. It’s very imaginative and compelling music and a thrill to play for the performer.
TJ: What are your plans in the near future?
MH: My main focus right now is launching the ANTHEM album on September 9th and then embarking on my ANTHEM Tour, taking this music to all fifty states. The title track of the album, Hendrix’s “Star Spangled Banner,” was recorded live at New York’s CBGB club, the birthplace of the punk rock movement; the Talking Heads and The Ramones performed there regularly. The album features nine composers in all, two of whom we commissioned especially for this recording. David Sanford’s “Seventh Avenue Kaddish” is a masterpiece inspired in part by John Coltrane’s “A Love Supreme” and Toby Twining wrote a microtonal blues piece for which I had to learn an entirely new technique, since most of the notes are way beyond the fingerboard, a tremendous challenge. Oxingale Records just signed with Artemis/Vanguard Classics for distribution, and they are collaborating with us on the ANTHEM project.
My sense of patriotism is closely tied with America’s rich and innovative cultural contributions. My ANTHEM Tour is about re-prioritizing the arts over war. The idea of going to remote parts of our country and playing works by Golijov, Woolf, Mackey, Sandford, Thomas, Stern, Machover, Twining, Harrison, and others is very exciting. Often this music is premiered and forgotten, but I have the chance to perform it again and again!
Many of these pieces should be of interest to cellists around the world and I look forward to meeting some Internet Cello Society members along the tour!
I’m also enjoying teaching at the University of Amherst in Massachusetts, where I look forward to having the strongest studio since I started teaching there four years ago. I just came back from a very special teaching and performing festival, the Nordic Music Academy in Denmark. It’s a festival that is run by violinist Nicolai Znaider, where the faculty works with seven or eight students, giving them two or three lessons each week. This was a very rewarding experience because the students were so hungry to learn. I love teaching at the Greenwood Music Camp as well, which is located in the Berkshire hills of Western Massachusetts. I’ve just performed five concerts this summer throughout Brazil, and played a series called “Bach Meets America” at the Rheingau Festival in Germany.
TJ: Do you think the audiences who frequent these alternative venues are better equipped to listen to contemporary music? It’s hard enough to get them to listen to Beethoven.
MH: Great music reaches out to people no matter where you play it. I don’t care what century or genre it belongs to. To me Beethoven is as contemporary as David Sanford in that it speaks to me with an urgency that makes me view the world around me in a new way. If I can communicate that to my audience, hopefully I will have their attention. People who come to hear music in the clubs are already music lovers even if they have never come into contact with classical music before. People are open to new musical experiences and I think the works on ANTHEM have a raw emotional power that reaches out.