Fifteen years ago, Matt Haimovitz recorded the Cello Suites by J.S. Bach for the first time. This year, the renowned Israeli-born cellist re-recorded them because he didn’t like the way the first take sounded anymore. The result: the recently released J.S. Bach: The Cello Suites According to Anna Magdalena.
“One day I’ll get it right,” he said, laughing.
Haimovitz will perform excerpts of these suites — solo compositions for cello — when he comes to Temple Judea in Furlong on Oct. 25 for a performance and a meet-and-greet.
Haimovitz got his start at 8 years old and made his professional debut at 13 as soloist with Zubin Mehta and the Israel Philharmonic while many of his peers were preparing for our Bar/Bat Mitzvahs or getting braces.
Since then, he has become known for his solo cello recitals and playing with orchestras such as the Berlin Philharmonic and the New York Philharmonic, though he has since moved away from performing with ensembles that large.
In that time, he has learned more about music and connecting with the composer.
“When you first look at this manuscript from a modern point of view, it’s amazing that there’s so little to go on for the performer,” said Haimovitz, 44, who also teaches at McGill University in Montreal.
Reading the original manuscript of the music offers a lot of clues to the performer — even if the composer, like Johann Sebastian Bach, didn’t leave explicit instructions.
“There are little dynamic markings,” he said, “very little tempo indications — there was more trust between composer and performer than today.”
Haimovitz’s latest release, which came out Oct. 9, is based on manuscripts written by Bach’s second wife, Anna. His stop at Temple Judea is just one of many he is doing to spread the appreciation for classical music.
Synagogues aren’t his usual haunts for concerts, but they are far from the most unusual venue the well-traveled cellist has played. When you think of classical music, venues like the now-defunct punk music staple CBGB don’t usually come to mind. But that’s just why Haimovitz performed Jimi Hendrix’s version of the “Star-Spangled Banner” there in 2002. He brought classical music to clubs and coffeehouses for his Bach “Listening Room” and “Anthem” tours in the early 2000s.
“I’m pretty open to things — as long as they don’t hurt my cello,” he said.
The choice to play in unconventional places is something that helps Haimovitz connect with a different kind of audience, ones who may not typically seek out a performance of classical music.
For example, he will be in New York City in a few weeks and stopping at places like Columbia University to play in random locations. Students shouldn’t be surprised if Haimovitz shows up in unexpected places — like the gym, for instance.
“I hope that while you’re on the treadmill, you enjoy some Bach,” he quipped.
He will be taking up a residency at Columbia’s Miller Theatre at the end of the month, where he will play A Moveable Feast and perform all six suites and brand new overtures over the course of two days — about three-and-a-half hours of music in total.
For these suites, Haimovitz commissioned six composers, including Philip Glass, Roberto Sierra and even his wife, Luna Pearl Woolf, to write overtures accompanying each suite, including the instantly recognizable prelude (which is distinctly familiar even if you aren’t a classical music connoisseur).
Each composer brings a different background, he said, which gives a new flavor to each suite.
Bach immersed himself in the vernaculars of his surroundings such as French, Italian, Spanish and, of course, German and incorporated it into his music — something Haimovitz wanted to emulate in his re-recording.
“I wanted to expand that palette of the folk and vernacular, give it more of a global feel,” Haimovitz said, as each composer who wrote an overture comes from a different background — from jazz roots to Hawaiian vibes.
Apart from Columbia’s halls, Haimovitz will be popping up in random places in New York City to play one suite with one overture. For him, part of the appeal of showing up in unexpected places is bringing the music to people who might not seek it out otherwise.
“You can take this music and you can find it in an unusual place, and all of a sudden it takes on a different meaning,” he said, adding that he hopes it entices them to come to the theatre to hear the music in full.
These unconventional venues also allow him to change as a performer and musician. He found expectations from the audience have changed, too.
“When I started playing coffeehouses, I realized that the audiences were not really there to see me be this larger-than-life, perfect thing,” he said. “They were there to be moved and to be engaged and the experience is much more human. It kind of changed my stance on what my role and purpose was.”
For these particular performances, he acquainted himself with the baroque style of playing as Bach had done. This required a different bow and even a different instrument — the cello piccolo, which he said he hadn’t had much experience playing before.
The baroque bow is lighter, he said, comparing it to a Porsche while the modern bow is “more like a pickup truck.”
He emphasized the importance of playing it the way Bach had in order to better connect with it, even if he didn’t have much experience with the style.
“I still can’t get over that after all the music that I’ve played and continue to learn, I’ll still get a piece by a composer and say, ‘Oh my God, how do I do that?’ ” he said with a laugh. “You think after a while, you’ve done everything on the instrument, but there’s always more.
“The most exciting thing has been to go back in time and get to the heart to what these composers were thinking, and what their issue was they were trying to solve.”
Gail Becker, executive director of Temple Judea is excited to be able to bring Haimovitz to the synagogue.
“Clearly, he’s a major force in the music world, and it’s exciting for us to be able to present a program like that here,” she said.
A fan of classical music herself, Becker said she is looking forward to the audience having the chance to talk with Haimovitz after his performance.
Haimovitz hopes guests are treated to a new side of classical music that they might not have heard otherwise. Even after 30 years of playing, he still finds something new about the music every time that he hopes will be the same experience for others.
Bach, especially, is one composer Haimovitz continues to return to again and again. Bach had once written about his time in Paris, and how it changed him, Haimovitz said, and he experienced something similar through the composer’s work.
“[He wrote] when you go to Paris, it changes your life forever. That’s how I feel about the Bach cello suites,” Haimovitz said. “Once you are exposed to them, it changes you.”
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