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During the past decade you were just as likely to hear cellist Matt Haimovitz playing Jimi Hendrix transcriptions for a surprised, inebriated crowd at a local dive as well as before a larger, more refined audience playing the traditional classics. Tonight’s performance at Eastern Music Festival’s first concert of their “Friends & Great Performers” series was mostly on the classics side with a bit of the rebel attitude that makes Haimovitz such a unique and captivating musician. Unfortunately, the predominantly “modern” thrust of the program resulted in poor attendance.
The subtitle of the concert was “Happy 100th Birthday, Elliot Carter” and featured a performance of Carter’s monumental cello sonata, which was played after the opening work: Beethoven’s fifth and final cello sonata, Op, 102, No. 2. Joining Haimovitz was pianist Geoff Burleson, a young musician who has already amassed prizes, accolades and teaching positions both as a classical and jazz performer. As Haimovitz subsequently explained, Beethoven was actually the first to write sonatas for cello and piano and the Carter sonata was a natural extension and culmination of this texturally difficult combination. This late work opens in an abrupt, angry, get-in-your-face fashion that Beethoven enjoys using to help clear the cobwebs from the audience. The second movement is long and slow and has equal, but different challenges of one with more and faster notes. Haimovitz displayed a refined tone and ability to sustain a long, flowing line even when the music appeared to become totally static. This led into an intense fugato final movement that presages the famous Grosse Fuge. This rapid, chromatic polyphony served as a warm-up for the birthday boy’s revolutionary opus for cello.
There are hundreds of now defunct world-record swimming times from 60 years ago that now will barely get you onto a high school team. Similarly, many musical works that were once considered “unplayable” by anyone other than a select few can now be heard regularly spilling out from practice rooms. While Carter’s 1948 Sonata for Cello and Piano has hardly become commonplace, technique is sort of catching up with the intense demands placed on the duo brave enough to bring this out in public. Haimovitz and Burleson brought poetry and musical coherence to what others are merely happy to get through technically – albeit the fact that that in itself is quite impressive. Throughout this large-scale four movement work, both players deftly waded through the minefield of rhythmic complexity that seems to simultaneously and incongruously demand independence, cohesion, freedom and orthodoxy.
We moved even closer to the present after intermission with a composition named “22 Part 1 for Cello and Piano” by David Sandford. Haimovitz came out with a score the size of several window panels and precariously placed them on his skimpy wire stand. Burleson gave a description of the composer and the work, but what sounded good in theory was a disappointment. There was a lot of talk of funk rhythms, jazz influences and the still out-of-reach synthesis of jazz and classical styles, but this was one lame funkster. Both players got to show off their prodigious chops, which by no means am I denigrating, but it was empty musical calories. It was an exhilarating ride and it certainly caught my attention – in the same manner as a summer blockbuster with lots of chases and car crashes.
Everyone knows about guilty pleasures, like the pompous, veddy dignified professor of Medieval music who goes home and puts on the soundtrack of Saturday Night Fever. There are also guilty displeasures and I will confess one of mine: I have never warmed up to Samuel Barber’s Sonata for Cello and Piano. I feel guilty, since I am a cellist, and it’s puzzling since I love almost everything else Barber has written. The opening of the work is promising and it almost sounds like that ravishing theme in his violin concerto, but it soon becomes like that famous quote about Wagner’s music being “better than it sounds.”
Putting aside my musical psychosis, this duo showed their remarkable versatility in switching gears to an atmospheric and cogent reading of one of the few jewels in the repertoire for cello and piano.
Bucking the convention of rousing, fleet-fingered encores (we had plenty of that already), Haimovitz and Burleson returned for a transcendent performance of the adagio movement from the F minor cello sonata of Brahms. The wistful beauty of the music and performance was like a warm blanket floating down on a cold night. You could sense a collective sigh in response to such perfection.