A Classic, With a Twist

Cellist Matt Haimovitz has shunned the concert halls in favor of smoky dives and saloons across the country. "I do think classical music is for everyone of all ages," says Haimovitz, who performs at Club Dada next Wednesday.

Let me guess: You don't like classical music. The very words make you itch like a new church suit, make you check to see if your shirttail is hanging out. It's not that classical music is terrible; it's just one of those fine art forms--like modern dance or abstract art--that seems to require so much...thought. Money. Manners. Effort.

I know, I know. I grew up with the stuff forced on me like brussels sprouts, and it took forever--well, a quarter of a century--to admit that, well, classical music wasn't all that bad. After all, I'd seen A Clockwork Orange and knew the shock of Beethoven's 9th. Oliver Stone seared Barber's "Adagio for Strings" in my mind with its perfect placement in Platoon--all those soldiers and tear-streaked children walking away from a village engulfed in flames. I love Woody Allen. And Woody Allen loves Gershwin, Prokofiev, Bach. The dark, bombastic Carmina Burana has been used in more movies than "Ring of Fire."

I liked these pieces because I didn't experience them as "classical," with all that term's stuffy connotations. It helped that I didn't have to cross my legs all ladylike or cough daintily into a white glove while listening. That's exactly why cellist Matt Haimovitz has chosen not to tour the traditional halls--at least not for now. Instead, in an effort to appeal to jaded types like myself, he is taking his cello--a 1710 Matteo Gofriller, by the way--into the smoky rough-and-tumble of the club scene. He plays Club Dada on Wednesday, February 4.

"Classical music acquired that exclusionary, elitist reputation over the years," says Haimovitz, 32. "The very fact that I'm showing up at a club makes younger generations more comfortable."

Haimovitz, an Israeli-born virtuoso destined for concert-hall greatness, began his career in the '80s. He has seen opera houses from Paris to Beijing, but there's one thing he didn't see: people his age. "It was incomprehensible to me why music that means so much to me wouldn't mean that much to my generation as a whole," he says. "I do think classical music is for everyone of all ages. I played a whole Bach cello suite for first-graders, and they were tickled. They don't have any problem sitting there for 25 minutes."

But by the time a good suburban kid turns 13, he knows classical music is about as hip as holding hands with his mom. So, if his peers wouldn't come to him, then Haimovitz would have to go to them. On his "Listening Room" tour, Haimovitz stormed saloons, caverns and such unlikely venues as Manhattan's fabled CBGB, playing Bach's cello suites for awestruck audiences.

"The response was amazing," Haimovitz says. "There were the classical people I've never seen so relaxed, smiling when there was humor in the music. Then you had people who are used to listening to jazz respond on the spot, whistling whenever they liked something." That's the kind of behavior that could get your ass thrown out of the Meyerson, which means it's welcome here. "It was a little disconcerting at first," says Haimovitz, who made his debut at 13 playing in Carnegie Hall, "but in the end, it's exactly how I listen to music, and that's what I would want, ideally, from an audience. To have an honest, unselfconscious way of listening."

Haimovitz has named his second tour "Anthem," after his popular interpretation of Jimi Hendrix's "Star-Spangled Banner." As an expression of Haimovitz's daring--and his politics--nothing could be more fitting. In this piece, the first on his new album, also called Anthem, Haimovitz pushes and plunges on his strings, practically reinventing the cello sound with its shivering notes and raw screech. "I'm just jealous of the electric guitar," he says, "so I make my cello sound like one."

He's not even kidding. In Anthem's liner notes, Haimovitz writes that he "longed to challenge the electric guitar's testosterone monopoly." Growing up studying in conservatories, in what he calls "a very sheltered, classical music home," Haimovitz didn't even hear Hendrix until he was in college, but it was a mind-blowing experience for him. And he wasn't even taking hallucinogens. "I liked the sheer visceral force of the music, the spirit," he says. "It completely expanded all my musical horizons. It wasn't like, 'Oh, I'm now listening to rock.' It was like, 'Wow. Here's a great composer out there that I didn't know about.'"

Electric guitar isn't the only instrument Haimovitz imitates. In the other 10 pieces that make up Anthem, Haimovitz's cello transforms into a saxophone, a flute and a sitar, among others. The pieces on the album, which he will play on tour, are all new American works, two of which Haimovitz commissioned as a response to September 11, David Sanford's "Seventh Avenue Kaddish" and Toby Twining's "9:11 Blues." These pieces are not "easy listening," but they are often easy to listen to--alternately beautiful and haunting, mournful, bolstered by the cello's long, bittersweet bellow.

"These composers don't want to write esoteric, inaccessible music," Haimovitz says. "It is emotionally based. And I think people will be struck by the diversity of the offerings and hearing the cello in ways they've never heard before."

Haimovitz's move into the clubs is part of a larger push to spark young audiences to classical music. Just two weeks ago, in this paper, Robert Wilonsky wrote about Vitamin's series of string quartet tributes, a stunningly eclectic array of offerings that includes chamber treatments of Nirvana, REM, Clay Aiken, Led Zeppelin and (the best seller!) Tool. The CD for the "world's first opera band," Amici, recently landed on my desk, with a cover photo of five stunning singers hot enough to trump anyone on The Apprentice. With its sexy violinists and half-naked divas, the classical world is starting to resemble the prefab, Orlando boy-band era of the 1990s. Not that Haimovitz necessarily aligns himself with, or even approves of, that movement.

"A lot of crossover stuff that I've heard is frankly tasteless and pandering," he says. "What I've tried to do is keep the substance of what I'm playing. I'm not dumbing down the actual music that I play, and I think that audiences appreciate that. There are audiences out there who simply haven't come into contact with classical music. They are sophisticated; they are constantly looking for new musical experiences, and by bringing it into the club, they can happen upon what I'm doing."

In other words, Haimovitz isn't a gimmick. And he had to laugh when a club owner handed him a contract that very boldly stated he could use no pyrotechnics. Like, dude, do you know who I am? "I've got a valuable instrument," he says with a laugh.

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