In the lan­guage of Bach

Cel­list Matt Haimovitz

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hu­man be­ings in our his­tory that you sort of can’t imag­ine the world with­out their ex­is­tence,” Matt Haimovitz said in re­sponse to a ques­tion about the never-end­ing im­por­tance of Jo­hann Se­bas­tian Bach. “You think of Shake­speare, for ex­am­ple, and I think Bach is one of those peo­ple. He some­how bal­ances the heart and the head and spir­i­tu­al­ity and hu­man na­ture. I find that ev­ery­thing comes to­gether in a way that is so uni­ver­sal. It is a mys­tery and also how pro­lific he was and the breadth of what he com­posed. For us cel­lists, it is our bi­ble, the foun­da­tion of our reper­toire.”

Haimovitz, who is renowned for his solo recitals, of­fers three this week­end in Santa Fe: at the Ge­or­gia O’Ke­effe Mu­seum, at the Bridge at Santa Fe Brew­ing Com­pany, and at the Scot­tish Rite Cen­ter. At each one, he al­ter­nates se­lec­tions from Bach’s solo cello suites with re­lated pieces by six com­posers he com­mis­sioned: Philip Glass, Du Yun, Vi­jay Iyer, Roberto Sierra, David Sanford, and Luna Pearl Woolf. The se­quence was recorded on his 2016 al­bum

(on the Oxin­gale la­bel he and his wife, Woolf, es­tab­lished). Haimovitz’s phras­ings and em­phases on the Bach suites are al­ways in­no­va­tive and per­sonal, but his per­for­mances of the works by Yun and the oth­ers are of­ten ex­trav­a­gantly spir­ited, some­times veer­ing into wild and atonal ter­ri­to­ries.

The cel­list, born in Bat Yam, Is­rael, made his de­but in 1984, at the age of thir­teen, with Zu­bin Me­hta and the Is­rael Phil­har­monic. His Carnegie Hall de­but came with a last-minute sub­sti­tu­tion for his teacher, Leonard Rose. Haimovitz and Shlomo Mintz, Mstislav Rostropovich, Isaac Stern, and Pin­chas Zuk­er­man per­formed Schu­bert’s String Quin­tet in C. Bach is a deep fa­vorite, but this is an ad­ven­tur­ous mu­si­cian: His 50-state An­them tour in 2003 cel­e­brated liv­ing Amer­i­can com­posers and fea­tured his ar­range­ment of Jimi Hen­drix’s scream­ingly beau­ti­ful Wood­stock per­for­mance of “The Star-Span­gled Ban­ner.”

Haimovitz, who also stud­ied with Ron­ald Leonard and Yo-Yo Ma, plays a cello made in 1710 by Mat­teo Gof­friller of Venice. His set at the Santa Fe Brew­ing Com­pany is an ex­am­ple of his pi­o­neer­ing clas­si­calper­for­mance ex­cur­sions into cof­fee houses, clubs, and parks. This and the other two con­certs are pre­sented by Per­for­mance Santa Fe. found Haimovitz at home in Mon­treal, where he re­sides and teaches cello at McGill Univer­sity.

Tell us about th­ese six com­posers’ in­ter­pre­ta­tions.

They’re very much in the lan­guage of the com­poser, but what I asked each one to do is en­gage the suite that they were as­signed and also to open up the in­flu­ences. I mean, Bach was syn­the­siz­ing all kinds of styles around him, what­ever he could get his hands on, from Spain and Italy and France. Any­thing he knew about he was in­cor­po­rat­ing into those suites. But he didn’t have ac­cess to jazz or Hawai­ian chants.

Or the mu­sic of In­dia, for ex­am­ple — Vi­jay Iyer’s par­ents are from In­dia.

Right, and my the­ory is that if he [Bach] had come into con­tact with any of that mu­sic, we would have more suites. So I asked ev­ery­body to open it up, cul­tur­ally. It’s amaz­ing, though, how they do ref­er­ence Bach in cer­tain ways, some­times very ab­stractly, but they kind of hone in on cer­tain as­pects. The piece by Vi­jay, for ex­am­ple, is so sunny and sort of cel­e­brates the low C string of the in­stru­ment and the tun­ing and over­tones of the in­stru­ment.

Iyer is an amaz­ing jazz pi­anist, but how would he write for cello?

But Bach also was a key­board player, and it’s kind of un­be­liev­able what he did for the cello. Vi­jay’s a good ex­am­ple be­cause when I first got the score, I took a look at it and I thought, This is im­pos­si­ble. I can’t play this on the cello. I tried for three days, and it still wasn’t sound­ing any bet­ter. Then I started to sort of change ar­tic­u­la­tions and make it my own dy­nam­ics, and all of a sud­den it started to re­ally take on a life and make sense. I asked Vi­jay, “Is it OK that I’m do­ing this with your piece?” He said, “Ab­so­lutely. I stud­ied the man­u­script that had sur­vived through Anna Mag­dalena, Bach’s sec­ond wife, and I saw that she gives very lit­tle in­di­ca­tion to the per­former, so I fig­ured I’m writ­ing in that style.” That’s why I love work­ing with com­posers who don’t know the cello, be­cause they dream up things I haven’t thought of as a cel­list, and I have to fig­ure out if it’s pos­si­ble. That’s a gen­er­ous way of think­ing about it.

Well, th­ese com­posers that I chose are so in­tu­itive in terms of per­for­mance, about what’s go­ing to hap­pen in per­for­mance, and each one of them is ab­so­lutely think­ing of what it feels like and what’s pos­si­ble. But for sure they stretch the tech­nique. There are things that now feel sec­ond na­ture to me, but, like with Vi­jay’s piece, when I started per­form­ing it I had never used the bow like that be­fore. I mean, I’m us­ing the bow like a drum­mer. I’m cre­at­ing pul­sa­tions I’ve never done be­fore.

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