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Cellist straddling two musical worlds

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Matt Haimovitz plays at Koerner Hall Nov. 5

Cellist Matt Haimovitz is used to playing in some pretty unconventional spots, but perhaps none quite as intimate as the last place he performed a brief interlude in B-minor.

“I was flying from San Francisco to New York a few weeks ago,” he explained on the phone. “I was really tired and I was sleeping most of the flight, and when I woke up, the stewardess said, ‘Oh, the captain is a classically trained pianist and is excited you’re on the plane. Would you play a concert for us?’”

Naturally, he complied.

“She put the handset to the cello for the broadcast. It was surreal to be up in the air that high and play some music and just hear the strains of Bach.”

When he heads to Toronto’s Koerner Hall on Nov. 5 to play the cello solo in Ernest Bloch’s Schelomo (Hebraic Rhapsody), the venue will be a little larger, but the Israeli-born virtuoso’s commitment to performance will be no less intense.


“I’m looking forward to it,” he said of the program that will be conducted by Maestro Marco Parisotto and backed by the Ontario Philharmonic as part of the Moordale Concerts series. “Koerner Hall is one of the great halls in Canada, so I’m excited to play there.”

Composed during Bloch’s “Jewish Cycle,” Schelomo is a gorgeously moody musical narrative about the story of King Solomon, with Haimovitz’s cello acting as its lyrical moor.

“The interpretation of it is so rich that the relationship of the solo cello line to the character of King Solomon just sort of takes you back in time and place and really puts you in a completely different world,” he said.

The character-driven drama of the rhapsody also appeals to the 42-year-old’s sense of adventure, the same one that led him to reject the trappings of a traditional career in classical music and forge his own path – a path that was set as soon as legendary violinist Itzhak Perlman singled him out at a California music camp in the early 1980s.

Within short order, the preteen prodigy from Bat Yam was whisked away to New York where he began to study at Julliard with legendary cellist Leonard Rose.

Rose, who before his death in 1984, taught everyone from Yo-Yo Ma to Yehuda Hanani, referred to Haimovitz as “probably the greatest talent I have ever taught.” Haimovitz would have been just shy of his 14th birthday at the time.

While expectations of half that intensity have been known to derail many a talented young artist, the musician says he found a way to compartmentalize the pressure.

“I always felt like I had some perspective on what was going on and I could step back. Even early on, I felt I had some clarity on what my true priority was and my true focus and passion. That’s what I tried to hold onto all the way through.”

That same clarity has also inspired him to take a far riskier route than his peers. Frustrated by what he perceived as the limitations of his chosen profession, Haimovitz made a daring break with tradition.

He began to experiment with contemporary composers like Philip Glass and, hungry for a different kind of audience, would take his act to nightclubs, rock bars and jazz clubs.

“I was following a very specific path as a virtuoso soloist, playing the same concerti over and over again with orchestras, and knowing three years in advance what I’d be playing and not being able to change that,” he explains. “I’d come across a piece or work with a composer and I’d want to change the program or add something to it and it was impossible. I was stuck with what I was doing.”

While more stately, grizzled eyebrows would rise over Haimovitz’s chosen concert schedule, his reputation ensured that he would always be welcome back in any traditional venue. At this point in his career, the boundary between concert hall and rock bar have even started to blur.

“For me the two worlds are reconciled. I try to bring what I learned from the nightclubs and rock clubs and jazz clubs back into that sense of intimacy and connection with the audience to the concert hall and I try to bring the standards of the high values of the concert hall into the clubs.”

The pursuit of the new is the principle that continuess to guide Haimovitz as he successfully straddles the two worlds. He’s interested in “stripping away the layers” that have grown over iconic pieces and imbuing the classics with a freshness that he hopes will attract music lovers who may not understand what makes classical music still relevant.

“Orchestras and conductors can play the music, and it’s as though you’re hearing it for the first time, and that’s what I try to do when I play,” he said. I try to get to the core and spirit of [the piece], understand the composer’s intentions and connect with it in a personal way and then express and communicate that to others.”

And if he can do that on an airplane, just imagine what he can do in a place with proper acoustics.

Cello phenomenon Matt Haimovitz joins the Ontario Philharmonic Orchestra and Maestro Marco Parisotto for two masterworks by composers of Jewish origin – Ernest Bloch and the giant of the symphony, Gustav Mahler.

The concert takes place Tuesday, Nov. 5, 8 p.m. at Koerner Hall, 273 Bloor St. W., Tickets, $40, are available from www.mooredaleconcerts.com, or by phoning 416-922-3714, ext. 103. It is the fourth joint presentation between Mooredale Concerts and the Ontario Philharmonic.

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