Consilience Productions
Essays

The Pizza Parlor Prodigy

Published May 2, 2004, NY Times

By JEREMY EICHLER

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JACKSON, Miss.

ACCLAIMED cello soloists rarely come through Jackson, and when they do, they almost never perform at Soulshine Pizza. But a few months ago, on a small stage close to the counter, Matt Haimovitz sat with his 18th-century Venetian cello, pouring his rich, silken tone into the restaurant. The audience had not yet arrived, and Mr. Haimovitz was serenely warming up with solo Bach. The music was transporting, and one could almost forget the surroundings — until the bartender burst in with news that the local rugby team was streaking nearby and that a brawl might be imminent.

It was just one of many recent curious moments for Mr. Haimovitz, who was once a major cello prodigy accustomed to playing in the elite halls of Europe and America. Now 33, he has chosen an alternative world, traveling the nation to perform in country and folk cafes, jazz spots and nightclubs: places where Budweiser flows freely and Beethoven does not, including the legendary punk club CBGB in New York, where Mr. Haimovitz will perform on May 15.

This is not another marketing gimmick, nor a strained attempt to make classical music hip. It is one man's unlikely quest to find meaning and connection in an art form that for years set him apart from the world. It is also an experiment that may be shedding light on how classical music can renew itself with audiences of the future.

The tale begins in Palo Alto, Calif., where Mr. Haimovitz's ascent was memorable even by prodigy standards. The son of a piano teacher and an engineer, he took up the cello at 7. When he was 10, Itzhak Perlman heard him in a master class and was taken, Mr. Perlman said recently, by his "uncanny ability to move you when he plays." A year later, Mr. Perlman sent him to study at the Juilliard School with the legendary performer and teacher Leonard Rose, who once called him "probably the greatest talent I have ever taught."

When Rose fell ill before a chamber concert in Carnegie Hall, Mr. Haimovitz replaced him in a quintet that included Isaac Stern, Mstislav Rostropovich and Pinchas Zukerman. He was still only 13. Solo appearances soon multiplied. For his New York Philharmonic debut, the widow of Pablo Casals lent Mr. Haimovitz the master's cello. At 17 he signed an exclusive recording contract with Deutsche Grammophon. At his peak in his late teens, he performed with 20 to 30 orchestras a season. He was on his way to a dream career.

But in the end, it was someone else's dream.

"I loved performing," he said while driving from Nashville to Jackson the day before the show. "I loved the spontaneity, I loved the risk and the danger and having the attention of the audience. I really loved every aspect of it, but it would all go away, and you would just move on to the next place. I started feeling more and more alienated, more and more alone. I wasn't part of any community."

On top of the loneliness, there was the stifling narrowness of the conventional solo repertory. "I started to realize it was really hard to play the Dvorak Concerto a thousand times and keep it fresh," he said. "I wasn't sure if that was really what I wanted to do."

But young stars have a special marketability, and when Mr. Haimovitz was 19, Deutsche Grammophon arranged a major recording project: the Dvorak Concerto with James Levine and the Berlin Philharmonic. The sessions were held in the afternoons while Mr. Haimovitz performed the Schumann Concerto with the orchestra in the evenings. It all proved too much too soon. Mr. Haimovitz was not satisfied with the edited tapes. He vetoed the project, and despite the enormous expense of hiring one of the world's finest orchestras, the recording was never released.

This was a turning point, and Mr. Haimovitz was not asked to record another concerto with the label. He had entered the murky zone that lies at the end of prodigyhood, and he began trying out his own ideas about repertory and performance style. He was also burning bridges.

"The people who had been very devoted to him and to his talent, and admired him enormously, were not necessarily as impressed by him as he changed," said David Foster, who represented Mr. Haimovitz at Columbia Artists Management in the early 1990's and is now the president of ICM Artists. "People would not be very specific, but they would say, `It's not what it was.' "

Mr. Haimovitz, for his part, was making sure of that. He began studying at Harvard, having applied without telling his management or his family. His passion for new music also caught fire as he began working with composers, including major figures like Luciano Berio, Gyorgy Ligeti, Henri Dutilleux and George Crumb. He finished out his Deutsche Grammophon contract with four discs of contemporary solo repertory, music that can be a tough sell in stores. The record industry was entering its own period of crisis, and there was no discussion about renewing the contract.

"I wasn't of interest to them," he said. "I wasn't playing the game."

Mr. Haimovitz moved briefly to Europe and married Luna Pearl Woolf, a composer he had met at Harvard. He also reconnected with the sad and noble heart of the cello repertory, the six solo suites by Bach, which he had stopped performing after growing doubtful about his approach. He recorded them in a church near his current home in western Massachusetts.

Rather than take the recording to Deutsche Grammophon, Mr. Haimovitz and Ms. Woolf chose to release it themselves. They founded Oxingale Records and presented a release concert at a local 250-seat acoustical music club, the Iron Horse. Although the booker was dubious at first, Mr. Haimovitz packed the house. "It was the first time I felt like I had really reached a broad audience," he said.

He spoke to his new manager about touring with the Bach suites, still along traditional lines. He was told, "Unless you're Yo-Yo Ma, forget about it."

So with the Iron Horse performance as his model, Mr. Haimovitz set up his alternative club tour. When his classical management became bewildered, he hired a former singer-songwriter to book him in clubs around the country. The results were striking.

Mr. Haimovitz found that by stripping away any vestige of stuffy concert hall packaging, he could get the music to speak to listeners who knew nothing about its history or the prescribed etiquette for receiving its rewards. What's more, for the first time in his career, he began playing to audiences largely of his own generation.

Having concluded the Bach tour last year, he has returned to the alternative club circuit to promote his new album, "Anthem," a collection of rigorous solo music by contemporary Americans. It takes its title from the one popular tune: Mr. Haimovitz's Jimi Hendrix-style version of "The Star-Spangled Banner."

Yet while he seems to have struck on something essential, the going has not always been smooth. Turnouts can be small if there is no university nearby or if he he has not been featured in the local paper. Occasionally, people show up only to leave again, denouncing the space as unfit for classical music. Critics have complained when there is a lack of proper seating or when restless crowds talk over the music.

But Mr. Haimovitz has had plenty of triumphs to sustain him. He described shows in cities like Seattle; Eugene, Ore.; New Orleans; and Columbia, S.C., as "rock concerts," meaning that they were packed with young people who responded viscerally. He has also started integrating chamber music into his touring schedule and making occasional appearances with orchestras, activities he still enjoys as long as he can do them on his terms.

The old-fashioned classical performances subsidize his other projects, though the "Anthem" tour sustains itself, he said, with postshow CD sales factored in. Oxingale is not yet earning money, but Mr. Haimovitz hopes that a new distribution deal with Artemis Records will help. He also teaches cello at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, and in the fall he will move to Montreal to teach at McGill University.

None of it will earn him anything like what his previous career track would have. Information on soloist fees is zealously guarded in the business, but according to two senior music executives who refused to be named, talented young soloists today can make several thousand dollars for a set of performances with an orchestra, and the fees grow with a player's renown, reaching more than $65,000 per night.

Mr. Haimovitz harbors no illusions about the trade-offs, but he seems to have made his peace. "One aspect of this tour that I wouldn't give up for anything," he said, "is the ability to control my own life, to play what I want to play on any given night and in a way that's more authentically me."

The real virtues of his new approach came through in the appearance at Soulshine, part of a larger downtown music club called Hal & Mal's. The crowd was modest, about 25 people, but they were engaged by Mr. Haimovitz's bracingly modern program, which included a work by Toby Twining written with queasy microtonal harmonies and one by Steven Mackey that required Mr. Haimovitz to slap the cello like a percussion instrument. Even two young pizza foragers, who looked as if they had just stumbled out of a fraternity party, stuck around long after they had emptied their plates, listening to Mr. Haimovitz wail away on his contemporary music.

But the most magical moment came after the show, when Mr. Haimovitz had started packing up and two middle-aged women came rushing into the room. They had read in the paper that he was in town, and they were crestfallen at having missed the show. Could he perhaps play something short for them? Mr. Haimovitz agreed and planted himself in a chair next to a table littered with beer bottles and an empty pack of cigarettes. The half dozen remaining audience members gathered around him in a semicircle.

Mr. Haimovitz closed his eyes, put bow to string and laid into the Prelude of Bach's First Cello Suite. He did not stop at the end of the movement but went on to play the entire work, about 20 minutes of music. It was some of the most moving and soulful playing heard by this listener in a very long time. The music seemed to pour out of his cello and wash over the huddled group, over the sea of empty tables and flimsy plastic chairs, over the bar and over the television flickering quietly in the opposite corner of the room.

What came through in that moment was the simplicity of the basic musical connection, and how it requires so little of the glittery packaging that can often pass for the concert experience itself. Ultimately, Mr. Haimovitz's tour may be proving the under-recognized value of new music in attracting new audiences. But the enraptured faces in the semicircle suggested an equally important insight into the power of smaller numbers, the richness of direct contact.

Perhaps classical music's audience problem could be solved if there were more living, breathing, palpable moments of exchange like the one that took place in this beer-drenched corner of a Mississippi pizza parlor. "It's so simple," Mr. Haimovitz said when happily back on the road, "to just take out your cello and start playing."

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