Speaking by phone from Montreal, Israeli-born cellist Matt Haimovitz revealed that he’s a great admirer of the American singer Nina Simone. Looking at his life and career, one can easily see why. Like Simone, Haimovitz is admired for his solid classical grounding, eclecticism, improvisatory brilliance and the fact that he defies easy classification.
Still, even Haimovitz was surprised when the famous minimalist composer Philip Glass asked him to solo on his latest project, a new CD of Glass’ seven-movement Cello Concerto No. 2 “Naqoyqatsi,” performed with the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra and conducted by longtime Glass champion Dennis Russell Davies.
Released this week, the recording is an extraordinarily atmospheric and dramatic concerto version of music originally conceived in 2002 as the score for “Naqoyqatsi: Life as War,” the third part of the experimental Qatsi Trilogy, documentaries exploring transformation in our technology-based world. The previous two are “Koyaanisqatsi” (1982) and “Powaqqatsi” (1988).
“I had never played one note of minimalism in my life,” Haimovitz said about working with Glass. “I’m a maximalist who loves as much counterpoint as possible. I love a lot of things happening at once.”
But when Glass called the cellist, a meeting was set up in Montreal, where Haimovitz is a professor at McGill University.
“When Philip came to Montreal, I was struck by his energy at 75,” Haimovitz said. “He’s one of the greatest film composers ever. So many people copy him now. And I found ‘Naqoyqatsi’ so beautiful. You couldn’t take away the soundtrack.”
That the original soundtrack featured cellist Yo-Yo Ma didn’t intimidate Haimovitz.
“I may be the first person in history to ask Glass to make the work longer,” Haimovitz said. “I felt like it needed to breathe.”
Haimovitz added that conductor Davies also made significant contributions, putting repeats back in and making other last-minute changes “to make it more of a concerto.”
For Haimovitz, Glass’ almost neo-Romantic Cello Concerto No. 2 debunks the minimalist categorization of him. “I know Glass doesn’t characterize himself as a minimalist,” Haimovitz said. “I was mesmerized by the score’s beauty and melodic writing. It is ethereal and very delicately accompanied.”
Movement titles on the CD, like “Intensive Time,” “Old World” and “The Vivid Unknown,” suggest the score’s dramatic themes and variety of moods.
Haimovitz said he was most impressed by the scope of Glass’ vision. “He’s influenced by things other than music,” Haimovitz said. “He’s a man of his times but has a larger perspective of what we’re going through.”
The cellist said that audience response to the concerto’s 2012 premiere in Cincinnati was overwhelming. “It’s a dark piece with a somber ending,” Haimovitz said. “It feels like Shostakovich’s Cello Concerto No. 2, but the audience erupted, they really let loose. I’ve never had a premiere get that reaction.”
During one week earlier this month, Haimovitz performed at the Jewish Music Festival in Berkeley, which presented the premiere of David Garner’s “Vilna Poems” song cycle. Based on the work of the late Holocaust poet Abraham Sutzkever, who was imprisoned by the Nazis in the Vilna Ghetto, the song cycle was a world away from Haimovitz’s next gig back in Montreal — a period-informed all-Beethoven program. Then, during the same week, the cellist took off for Germany to perform one of the repertory’s warhorses, Dvorak’s Cello Concerto.
Although Haimovitz called that week “schizophrenic,” it wasn’t unusual for a musician equally at home playing Bach’s Cello Suites on the rock-club circuit or his own improvisatory version of Jimi Hendrix’s 1969 electric-guitar “Star-Spangled Banner,” The latter is the title track of Haimovitz’s 2003 album, “Anthem,” recorded live at New York’s CBGB nightclub, where the punk-rock movement was born.
“It’s been an evolution,” Haimovitz, 42, said, referring to his eclectic career. “Early on, as a kid recording for Deutsche Grammophon, I asked if I could do two living composers and slightly more offbeat repertory. But that was the beginning of the end with DG. They couldn’t figure out how to market the contemporary stuff.”
While Haimovitz did get the opportunity to do “quite a few first recordings” of works by Ligeti, Berio and Lou Harrison, he also realized he didn’t fit the mold of a major label artist. Moreover, it was a time when the Internet was changing the business, when big recording companies were taking fewer risks. So the cellist, who was 17 when he was signed by DG, went back to school, earning a degree at Harvard.
“It wasn’t that strange for me to be curious,” Haimovitz said about that decision, “to follow my own path and heart. I grew up sheltered by classical music. When I heard Coltrane and Mingus, they just blew my mind.”
Once the door was opened, Haimovitz went on to collaborate with pioneering jazz, rock and Indian classical music fusion guitarist John McLaughlin, producing 2005’s “Goulash!” One of the cellist’s most personal recordings, “Goulash!” explores his family’s Romanian and Middle Eastern heritage.
Haimovitz was raised in the United States and received his first big break when the violinist Itzhak Perlman heard the 11-year-old play at the Music Academy of the West in Santa Barbara. Perlman convinced the family to move to New York, where young Matt studied with Leonard Rose at the Juilliard School. He went on to make his solo debut in 1984, at 13, with Zubin Mehta conducting the Israel Philharmonic.
These days, whether performing a Bach suite, a solo cello arrangement of Led Zeppelin’s “Kashmir” or a work with his all-cello band UCCELLO, Haimovitz strives to erase musical boundaries. “There are two kinds of music,” Haimovitz said, quoting Duke Ellington, “good music and the other kind.”
While Haimovitz still performs standard repertory in traditional concert halls, he makes no secret about what he prefers.
“All my ideals growing up were about trying to be perfect,” Haimovitz said. “But it became much more important to put a human face on the music. Especially in more intimate spaces, where people are in closer contact with the music, it touches them.”