Taking Classical Music to Bars and Taverns

IN THIS ISSUE SEPTEMBER 2009

September 2009 Issue

Interview with Revolutionary/Classical Cellist Matt Haimovitz
Author: Danielle Graham
Photographer: Harry DiOrio & Amber Davis

Matt Haimovitz was recognized as a child prodigy and by thirteen was studying at Juilliard with Leonard Rose, who described him as “probably the greatest talent I have ever taught.” He made his professional debut at fifteen with Zubin Mehta and the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra, and by seventeen he had secured a ten-year recording contract with the prestigious Deutsche Grammophon label. While continuing to tour and record regularly, Haimovitz attended Princeton and graduated from Harvard – magna cum laude. And though he was considered to be one of the emerging classical music stars of the 21st century, there was an indelible problem he could not ignore: no young faces in his audiences.

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Taking Classical Music to Bars and Taverns - Interview with Revolutionary Classical Cellist Matt Haimovitz

Forsaking the comfort of traditional concert halls, Haimovitz pioneered an unorthodox path: He took his cello to bars, clubs, restaurants, road houses – wherever he could, and performed a repertoire that included Bach, contemporary classical composers, and Jimi Hendrix to enthusiastic audiences across the country. “After playing the Saint-Saëns a hundred times, I began questioning what I was doing,” he recalls. “That’s when I took a turn in a 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.”

People who would normally be intimidated by classical music and the formality of its traditional venues met him halfway: They came in droves to hear him play solo cello, in the comfort and safety of their hometown taverns and pizza parlors. During his first alternative tour he performed primarily Bach, but by the second, he courageously branched out to perform the 20th century classical music he loved, written by the very composers most symphony orchestras are too conservative to embrace. Today, his touring schedule combines both traditional and non-traditional venues as he continues to help move classical music into the future by performing both new and centuries old compositions.


SC: As an internationally celebrated soloist, what was it like to walk away from the familiar concert hall environment into the smaller more intimate venues? How did your awareness of your audience change?

MH: It was really a circular process. I definitely felt unprepared to share something “personal” with my audience, because that was something I was not brought up to do. Instead, I was trained to put up a wall and become larger than life – “the heroic virtuoso.” So, the idea of stepping into a stage and having to be a human being at the same time as being an artist was a very foreign experience. The idea of talking to an audience, feeling the chemistry of the room and then actually engaging all those things and responding to them in real time was all pretty foreign.

I was trained to put up a wall and become larger than life – “the heroic virtuoso.” So, the idea of stepping into a stage and having to be a human being at the same time as being an artist was a very foreign experience.

I had instincts for it early on because I loved to perform and I love the spontaneity, but when I took myself off the concert stage and I was right there with the audience, I had to make that evening work. Even if I had been on the road ten days in a row, and hardly knew where I was anymore, I still had to go out there and bring the music to life. Sometimes that required rearranging what I was going to play and bringing in new music when necessary. Just having some flexibility and being open to embracing the audience in that way was completely new for me.

Performing in alternative venues affected how I saw my role in general and how I engage music at all kinds of different levels, even in my own private study of a piece of music. It really goes back to the idea of the origin of the classical tradition – getting to the heart of what makes a great piece of music unique as selfreferential and something that works on its own terms –by removing all the other layers and really communing with the composer. I’ve learned a lot about that interpretive process from being open to audiences and to the idea of my own vulnerabilities.

Taking Classical Music to Bars and Taverns - Interview with Revolutionary Classical Cellist Matt Haimovitz

SC: When building rapport in the club environment, you also have the flexibility to take five minutes to help introduce a contemporary piece you are about to play – to inform the audience as to what things to listen for or to help remove any stigma that they won’t be able to understand it. Even if they were already familiar with Mozart or Hayden, they might not have ever heard Elliott Carter or Samuel Barber. Have you integrated that more personal style of simply talking with the audience during more traditional venue concerts?

MH: It depends. When I am by myself, I feel free to do whatever I want but when I am performing in a concert hall it is a little different. I don’t always feel comfortable when I am standing in front of a one hundred member orchestra and breaking their focus by talking to the audience. It depends on what I am playing. If I’m playing a Dvorak Concerto, something the audience would probably be much more familiar with, unless it was some very special occasion, it wouldn’t be appropriate to break the focus because there is a certain ceremony in the concert hall.

It really goes back to the idea of the origin of the classical tradition – getting to the heart of what makes a great piece of music unique as self-referential and something that works on its own terms – by removing all the other layers and really communing with the composer.

More and more I do bring into the larger concert hall spaces what I have learned from the alternative venues, but I think I can do that without saying anything. If I am attentive to the audience no matter how big it is, I can transcend space too, not just the music, and do what I need to do with it.

SC: And take your audience with you.

MH: Oh yes, absolutely.

SC: You have mentioned before that Beethoven speaks to you with an urgency that makes you view the world around you in a new way. How do you express those emotions – especially with more unfamiliar contemporary pieces from living composers – in totally new ways and in totally alien environments?

MH: The whole idea of bringing music of substance, of the highest quality, to more intimate and less formal spaces is that it provides a fully immersive experience that allows both the artist and the audience to get into the music without being self-conscious and without coming to it with any preconceived ideas. I’ve set out to build an audience with a community of people who share my artistic values and are also willing to take the leap with me to have this adventure.

In any historic period when a new composition was written, say late Beethoven, no one understood the composer or what he was attempting to convey. Today, people might listen to a new Elliott Carter piece and wonder, “What is that all about?” Whenever a composer or the musician plays a contemporary piece that is stretching the language or inventing a new language or a way of conveying new sounds, there’s always a sense of the unknown. I’m not only building an audience but also growing with them. As a musician, I want my audience to also have that experience with whatever piece of music I am playing.

SC: Are there any particular incidences that stand out for you when you were touring the alternative venues in which you experienced a moment of transcendence in your audience?

MH: One for sure – this one place in Miami, Churchill’s – when I was on the Anthem Tour.

It was a midnight show and the owner of the club was so respectful, he decided not to book any bands around me. So, it was kind of eerie to walk into this punk club in a Haitian slum in Miami and it was dead silent. I wondered who would show up and who did show up was this really wild assortment of people, random people that I would have never expected to come hear solo cello music. They were of totally different nationalities and they all sat there very skeptical of each other like “what are we doing here at midnight at this club?” As I started to play, I could feel and see their faces, one by one, go from this uncomfortable tension to recognition of what I was doing. The audience gradually became willing to come with me in whatever direction I was going to next.

As I started to play, I could feel and see their faces, one by one, go from this uncomfortable tension to recognition of what I was doing. The audience gradually became willing to come with me in whatever direction I was going to next.

SC: They relaxed into the music, but did they relax with each other?

MH: It was great. At the start, I had questioned whether or not I should go on with the show. At that time I always wore a suit when I played those dives because I wanted to respect these contemporary composers whose music I was playing. Churchill’s was one of those nights that I questioned whether or not I should even put on my suit, but I did. At the end, people were talking to each other and I ended up hanging out with them for a long time afterwards.

Taking Classical Music to Bars and Taverns - Interview with Revolutionary Classical Cellist Matt Haimovitz

SC: What about personal revelations – when you learned something important that translated broadly into your work?

MH: I was on this tour called “Ropea- Dope New Music” with twenty other musicians. I was the only classical act. There were musicians like jazz guitarist Charlie Hunter and the avant-garde jazz band Sex Mob, so I though I had to start with my most cutting edge stuff.

The first night, I think we were in Des Moines, the promoter came back to me after I played and said, “You know, this is really cool, but, you know that recording of Bach you have? Would you mind starting with a little love before you start diving into all that other stuff?” So, from then on, I would start with the Bach, then I went to the contemporary, and then I went to the Jimi Hendrix and then started improvising. I learned the power of embracing the audience before challenging them. That was a great learning experience for me about how to really bring an audience around and make my music more available to them.

SC: Are you currently performing in any alternative venues?

MH: We have a tour scheduled for the fall which will include some alternative venues. What is exciting is that in September we are opening a new complex here in Montreal. This venue has been designed and built for the express purposes of creating smaller, more intimate live performance experiences.

For more information about Matt Haimovitz, his recordings and touring schedule, go to http://www.oxingale.com

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