Cellist Takes New Music on 50 State Club Tour

Cellist Takes New Music on 50 State Club Tour

Many in the new music industry have been biting their collective nails to the quick debating how to draw attention to the art form and attract the ears of new audiences, namely the 20 and 30-somethings we suspect would be interested in the work we do if the economic and social pressures that go along with attending the average classical music concert were removed.

While we were talking, 33-year-old cellist Matt Haimovitz, an established concert soloist, stepped out of the concert hall and planned a tour through the bars and clubs of America rather than wait for these new audiences to find him.

Actually he planned his second. Previously, he and his wife, composer Luna Pearl Woolf, packed up the car and toured the “Bach Listening-Room,” taking Bach‘s cello suites to alternative venues across the U.S., Canada, and the U.K.

The current tour, launched in September 2003, is in support of his recently released album Anthem, a collection of solo works by (hold your applause, please) living American composers. In addition to featuring works by Osvaldo Golijov, Luna Pearl Woolf, Lou Harrison, Tod Machover, Steven Mackey, David Sandford, Robert Stern, Augusta Read Thomas, and Toby Twining, the disc opens with the “Star Spangled Banner” à la Jimi Hendrix, recorded live at CBGBs in 2002.

So how does it feel to step out from behind the protection of the proscenium arch? “The first few times, terrifying. Really, it was the scariest thing I’ve ever done,” admits the totally candid Haimovitz. “I was groomed within the classical soloist tradition to play concertos with orchestras on a subscription series. I never did any talking to the audience. On the contrary, I felt really uncomfortable with public speaking.”

Watching club performers connect with people showed Haimovitz what that kind of impromptu interaction could add to his own performances. No longer afraid his audiences will throw rotten fruit, he says his shows still have an unpredictability to them that can be nerve wracking, “but once I got my first laugh out of them I realized that I can talk to them and they can relate to me. After that when I played in the concert hall, I felt like I was missing that close relationship. I feel like I need to set up the next piece I’m going to play or tell them about an experience I just had that day.”

Haimovitz also noticed another advantage of the club scene—no one asked to approve the set list. “I realized I could sneak in anything I want and they’ll let me because they had a good experience the last time,” he admits. So though he had been “laughed out of offices when I would suggest playing a solo cello program of American composers,” in the clubs and bars he found audiences and venues willing to just trust him.

Golijov, Harrison, Machover, Twining—all in the same evening? The program he’s touring might seem suicidal to a traditional classical music marketing team. But his audience’s reaction? “Unbelievable,” says Haimovitz. “It’s exactly what I would want out of an audience for any music. The intensity in the way they’re listening, they’re absorbing everything and this is not an easy program. Every piece has it’s own musical language.” Admittedly he’s lost a few of the classical fans he picked up on the Bach tour, “but I gained this whole other audience that I have to say is just totally open to just about anything that I’ll play.”

Matt Haimovitz
Matt Haimovitz
Photo by Harry DiOrio

Listen to Haimovitz play the opening notes of the “Star Spangled Banner” as inspired by Jimi Hendrix

The tour has been well supported by local alternative and mainstream press, the novelty of a cellist at the end of the bar not yet worn away. He’s a frequent radio interview on classical and college stations and some have even broadcast the Hendrix track. Rock stations have been harder to break into, but a station in Minneapolis promoted the concert with a few announcements. With no budget for advertising, this kind of attention has been important to publicizing the shows.

Though not previously politically active, Haimovitz says that after playing the Hendrix at CBGBs (ABC and the Wall Street Journal were in attendance) he started to appreciate the kind of political statements music can make. “My God, it was CBGBs, I could have gone so much further, but still,” he says of Hendrix’s classic comment on the war in Vietnam.

As the US launched millitary actions abroad and introduced new legislation here at home, Haimovitz’s concerns grew to the point that he felt he had to make some kind of statement. “I realized that my sense of patriotism was more along the lines of being able to express my opinions freely if I disagreed with our government. When I saw that these freedoms were beginning to be threatened by a false sense of patriotism and the use of fear and intimidation, it really triggered something in me, as not as an artist but as a citizen.”

Abstractly, this is became the motivation behind Anthem. Two pieces were commission especially for the disc as a reaction to the tragedy of 9/11, but in a broader sense Haimovitz says “by playing a national tour of music by living American composers, especially in an election year, I’m celebrating America’s music and freedoms. I’m trying to show that that is a stronger expression of patriotism than the glorification of this country’s military might.”

Oxingale, the label he started with his wife, allows him the freedom to take on projects that may court controversy or that the majors can’t risk. Anthem is their third release. Haimovitz says the nights he still spends playing Tchaikovsky in the concert hall help subsidize the experimental work.

Two months into the Anthem tour, the cellist still plans to hit all 50 states, though the nature of club booking makes publicizing the shows too far in advance difficult. The tour’s spring dates should be posted on his Web site soon.

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