Haimovitz, Matt

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Matt Haimovitz


He has been called the coolest cellist of our times, and the performer who brought classical music to the masses. Israeli-born cellist Matt Haimovitz has performed Bach in bars, and contemporary classical music in nightclubs. When Haimovitz started performing, he appeared in conventional concert venues, and he has never given up his traditional classical career. "I've never forsaken the concert hall," Haimovitz explained to Channing Gray of the Providence Journal. "But I wouldn't give up the more intimate settings and a chance to play for new audiences…. I'm bringing back the heart of what we do as performers."

Matt Haimovitz was born in suburban Tel Aviv, Israel, on December 3, 1970. His mother was a pianist, and the cellist who would later perform the music of Jimi Hendrix and Led Zeppelin on his instrument was raised on classical music exclusively. Haimovitz's father was an engineer who sought his fortune in Palo Alto, in California's booming Silicon Valley in 1975. When Haimovitz was seven, he heard a cello for the first time and showed an immediate liking for the instrument. He soon started lessons with a local teacher, Irene Sharp, and then moved on to study with a Hungarian-born teacher, Gabor Rejto, who had been a student of the great Spanish cellist Pablo Casals. Both teachers stressed musical expression over technical drills.

When Haimovitz was eleven he went to New York's Juilliard School to audition for Leonard Rose, one of the top cellists in the United States. Rose agreed to take him on as a student, and encouraged the entire Haimovitz family to move to New York. Adding a strong grasp of basic cello technique to his already unusually expressive style, Haimovitz quickly developed into a teenage prodigy. Rose was diagnosed with cancer and died in 1984, and shortly before his death Haimovitz was tapped to fill in for his teacher in a Carnegie Hall performance of Franz Schubert's String Quintet in C major, with all four of the other players being giants of the classical music world.

Soon after that, Haimovitz was invited by conductor Zubin Mehta to appear with the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra, and his international career grew steadily. As a student at Princeton University, Haimovitz was introduced to contemporary classical music, but mostly he played a group of durable classical cello favorites like the Cello Concerto No. 1 in A minor by French composer Camille Saint-Saëns and Franz Joseph Haydn's Cello Concerto in C major. The pattern continued when Haimovitz was signed to the Deutsche Grammophon label in 1989; he recorded some new music, and even participated in an improvisation project, Trios with Rob Wasserman (1993), but mostly he stuck to established classical repertoire.

In the 1990s, various factors worked together to slow Haimovitz's career and increase his frustration. Together with other musicians who came of age during a boom in classical music that accompanied the rise of the compact-disc medium, he faced the problem of making the transition to a career as an adult. Deutsche Grammophon hit hard times as sales declined, and Haimovitz worked with a revolving-door sequence of executives. Most of all, he was disturbed by the impersonal quality of classical concerts. Once he performed at the prestigious Alte Oper hall in Frankfurt, Germany. "I remember finishing the recital—there was nobody backstage—and leaving the hall without any feedback from the audience or anyone," he explained to Graham Rockingham of Canada's Hamilton Spectator. "It left me feeling very cold."

Haimovitz shelved a finished Deutsche Grammophon recording because he was dissatisfied with his performance, and the label responded by dropping him from its roster. He enrolled for graduate study at Harvard University and supported the career of his wife, composer Luna Pearl Woolf. In 1999 the two took a radical step in what was then a centrally controlled classical world: they formed their own label, Oxingale Records. For his debut release on the label, Haimovitz recorded one of the cornerstones of the cello repertoire, the six suites for unaccompanied cello of Johann Sebastian Bach.

Making inquiries with his agent about the possibility of touring in support of the album, Haimovitz was turned down flat. But the cellist and his wife, who served as producer, decided that the album at least deserved a release party. By that time Haimovitz was teaching cello at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, and he made inquiries about performing at the Iron Horse, a durable folk music club in nearby Northampton. The club agreed to book Haimovitz if he would assume some of the financial risk. As it happened, hundreds of people were turned away from the 250-seat club.

For the Record …

Born December 3, 1970, in Tel Aviv, Israel; moved to U.S. with family at age five; married Luna Pearl Woolf (a composer). Education: Attended Princeton University and Harvard University; studied cello with Irene Sharp, Gabor Rejto, Leonard Rose, and Ron Leonard.

Made debut, with Israel Philharmonic Orchestra, 1984; performed with top orchestras in U.S. and Europe, 1990s; recorded for Deutsche Grammophon label, 1989–99; formed Oxingale Records and began recording for label, 1999; began performing in pop venues such as bars and clubs, 1999; professor of cello, University of Massachusetts at Amherst, 1999–2004; professor of cello, McGill University, Montreal, Quebec, Canada, 2004–.

Awards: Avery Fisher Career Grant, 1986; Grand Prix du Disque and Diapason d'Or (France), 1991; Harvard University, Louis Sudler Prize, 1996; Premio Internazionale "Accademia Musicale Chigiana," 1999.

Addresses: Office—Schulich School of Music, Room E203, Strathcona Music Building, 555 Sherbrooke St. West, Montreal, QC H3A 1I3, Canada. Record company—Oxingale Records, P.O. Box 161 Montreal, QC H2X 4A4, Canada, website: http://www.oxingale.com.

Playing in a situation so different from what he was used to, Haimovitz was disconcerted at first but quickly found positive aspects to the experience. "It was quite a shock to play in a venue like that," he told Tim Janof of the Internet Cello Society. "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 [movements or sections of the piece] 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."

That concert grew into a unique tour of about 80 venues, mostly folk and rock clubs, that Haimovitz called the Bach Listening Room Tour. He found that the concerts drew a wide mix of listeners, from traditional classical enthusiasts in suits to punk-rock fans in T-shirts. Haimovitz stopped in to the venerable New York rock club CBGB to record his next Oxingale album, Anthem, which sent him off on a second, longer tour of nontraditional venues. On both the album and the tour, Haimovitz introduced one of his trademarks: an arrangement for cello of the "Star-Spangled Banner" solo played by rock guitarist Jimi Hendrix at the Woodstock festival in 1969. His tours did not constitute an easy way to make a living. At one performance in a Los Angeles club, Haimovitz had to stop playing and break up a brawl between two drunken patrons. His fee for an evening of music in a bar was much less than he might get for traditional symphony concerts (which he continued to perform), but he told Gray that "I'm able to pay the bills, and that's what I've been after, to show that this kind of music can stand on its own two feet, that there's a loyal audience for it."

Stimulated creatively by the freedom that came with running his own label rather than answering to an artists-and-repertoire executive, Haimovitz delved into new music for the cello with Anthem and its successor, Goulash (2005). That album used a general focus on the music of Eastern Europe (the ancestral home of Haimovitz's own family) to perform a wide range of music: the Hungarian-folk-influenced pieces of composer Béla Bartók, Led Zeppelin's "Kashmir," music by contemporary Romanian composer Adrian Pop, a work for cello and guitar by Argentine-Israeli-American composer Osvaldo Golijov called Oración Lucumí, and improvisations by Haimovitz and ambient electronic musician DJ Olive. The disc was Haimovitz's biggest seller up to that point, and he told Gray that he expected it to turn a profit in "a year or so."

By that time, Haimovitz had landed a new teaching job that provided him with a stable base of operations for his performance experiments. In 2004 he became professor of cello at McGill University in Montreal. The university encouraged him to tour, and presenters trying to attract new audiences for classical music were keenly interested in what he might do next. For his part, Haimovitz seemed intent on nurturing the new bond he had formed with rock and pop audiences. "Even if a handful show up" to one of his concerts, he told Andrew Druckenbrod of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, "the magic between us can bring out my best."

Selected discography

Saint-Saëns, Lalo: Cello Concertos: Bruch, Kol Nidrei, Deutsche Grammophon, 1989.
Haydn, C.P.E. Bach, Boccherini, Deutsche Grammophon, 1990.
Suites and Sonatas for Solo Cello (Britten, Crumb, Ligeti, Reger), Deutsche Grammophon, 1991.
(With Joan Jeanrenaud and Rob Wasserman, also featuring other musicians) Trios with Rob Wasserman, GRP, 1993.
Kodaly: Sonata, Op. 8, Britten, Suite No. 3, Berio, "Les mots sont allés," Deutsche Grammophon, 1995.
The 20th-Century Cello, Volume 2, Deutsche Grammophon, 1997.
Portes Ouvertes: The 20th-Century Cello, Volume 3, Deutsche Grammophon, 1999.
UnderTree (Luna Pearl Woolf: The Orange and the UnderTree), Oxingale, 1999.
J.S. Bach: Six Suites for Solo Cello, Oxingale, 2000.
Lemons Descending, Oxingale, 2001.
The Rose Album, Oxingale, 2002.
Haydn/Mozart (concertos for cello and orchestra), Transart Live, 2003.
Anthem, Oxingale, 2003.
Epilogue (Mendelssohn, String Quartet in F minor, Op. 80, Schubert, String Quintet in C major, D. 956), Oxingale, 2004.
Goulash, Oxingale, 2005.



Detroit Free Press, February 8, 2006.

Hamilton Spectator (Hamilton, Ontario, Canada), August 31, 2006, p. G11.

Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, October 6, 2005, p. W15.

Providence Journal, February 2, 2006, p. L16.

Santa Fe New Mexican, February 11, 2005, p. PA28.


Briggs, Newt, "Music: Taking back Bach," Las Vegas Mercury, http://www.lasvegasmercury.com (November 18, 2006).

Janof, Tim, "Conversation with Matt Haimovitz," Internet Cello Society, http://www.cello.org/Newsletter/Articles/haimovitz/haimovitz.htm (November 18, 2006).

"Matt Haimovitz," Oxingale Records, http://www.oxingale.com (November 18, 2006).