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Cellist Haimovitz: Classic Bach, Classic Rock

Matt Haimovitz is savvy and provocative, which aren't the usual adjectives used to describe a fine cellist. Yes, he has wonderful liquid tone on the cello, as well as a flair for both lyric beauty and rhythmic bite in his playing. But to get a complete picture of Matt Haimovitz, you have to talk about more than his cello sound.

Haimovitz is a very 21st-century classical musician, aware that the old model of music distribution is crumbling. When he began playing solo classical cello in bars and rock clubs, pizza joints and coffee houses 10 years ago, it was innovative. And when he founded his own record label, it seemed a risky and time-consuming venture for a classical musician. Now, there are dozens of young classical players around the country following his lead.

That same sense of openness and experimentation informs Haimovitz's choice of music. When he joined me in the studio, he played solo Bach with piercing clarity and a flowing sense of line, but we also talked about his four-cello arrangement of a Led Zeppelin tune, which provoked strong listener reaction, both positive and negative.

Given his sprawl of activity and musical entrepreneurship, I half-expected Haimovitz to be a bullheaded, "Type A" personality. But Haimovitz is warm and gentle, quick to smile, articulate and thoughtful. Musical guests sometimes arrive in the studio nervous about what awaits them, hoping for me to put them at ease. He put me at ease.

More About Matt Haimovitz

At 13, Haimovitz was the featured soloist with the Israel Philharmonic and conductor Zubin Mehta. It was already obvious that the talented Israeli-born musician was on his way to a brilliant career as a classical cellist. With solid credentials that include studies at Princeton, a degree from Harvard, lessons with Yo-Yo Ma and the legendary cellist Leonard Rose, and a Carnegie Hall debut, Haimovitz rose rapidly.

What wasn't obvious was that he was a man on a mission — to win converts to classical music and to expand the horizons of classical-music fans. A musical risk-taker, the intrepid Haimovitz successfully took his Bach out of the concert hall and into local bars, jazz and rock clubs and other unorthodox venues, where his artistry could touch people who otherwise would never seek out a classical concert. The cellist's pioneering spirit hasn't stopped there: He loves to collaborate with living composers and non-traditional ensembles, cooking up tasty projects that flavor performances with a spirit of adventure for musicians and listeners alike.

Himself a "convert" — to classic rock — Haimovitz spices up his classical programs with the occasional rock song, skillfully arranged for solo cello, such as Jimi Hendrix's 1969 improvised version of "The Star Spangled Banner."

Despite a relentless touring schedule, Haimovitz remains committed to teaching. In 2004, he was appointed Professor of Cello at McGill University in Montreal. Uccello, his all-cello band of advanced students, is featured on the 2005 CD Goulash! — playing his own arrangement of the Led Zeppelin classic "Kashmir."

Listen to the previous Favorite Session, or see our full archive.

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Fred Child
Fred Child is a commentator for NPR and the host of American Public Media's Performance Today.
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