It was déjà vu all over again. Back in the days when Florida State University had a football team that was every bit as inept as Duke’s current one, I attended that Tallahassee institution, majoring in music. Along the main drag of Tennessee Street was a bar called the Pastime Tavern, a joint that, in comparison, makes any Chapel Hill watering hole look like the Copacabana. There was however one unique feature of this dive – a downstairs room featuring live classical music performances. String quartets, classical guitarists, brass quintets, and even complete chamber orchestras played beneath a venue offering nameless draft beer for 30 cents, frequented by bikers and pool players. The musicians were all students from the excellent music school at FSU, and they provided some of my best memories from those days. I had not experienced anything remotely like that again until March 12, at The Cave, in Chapel Hill.

Born in Israel in 1970, Matt Haimovitz has become one of the most respected and sought after cellists in the world. The name dropping of all the great artists and orchestras he has played with would take up too much space here, but his primary studies were with the late, great cellist and teacher Leonard Rose at Juilliard. In addition to his voyage through almost all the standard repertoire, he is also a champion of new music, and of old music in non-traditional venues. He began his “Bach Listening Room Tour” shortly after he recorded Bach’s six Suites for unaccompanied cello on the record label ( he began with his wife, composer Luna Pearl Woolf. The purpose of this tour, which has been going on for almost two years, is, simply, to present these suites in “new” environments to audiences that would not normally attend traditional classical music recitals. This is certainly not a new idea. I recall growing up in New York when the mecca of rock concerts, the Fillmore East, featured organist Virgil Fox as a warm up act to other “classical” artists such as Led Zeppelin. However, these experiments in cross-programming usually were done as gimmicks, involved big halls, and were short-lived. Haimovitz is performing mainly in very small bars, clubs, and even barns under an arrangement that is probably not very lucrative, financially. As he has said in writing (and in person), he does it because of the universality of this music and to underscore, especially in these tense times, the greatness of man’s creations as opposed to his destructive side.

The Cave is, well, very cave-like. Probably no more than fifteen feet wide, and not very long, it is a far cry from Duke’s Page Auditorium, where Haimovitz last played when he was in this area. He was no more than a few feet from the first row of chairs. As an aspiring cellist, it was an incredible experience for me to be so close as a master of the instrument played the first three of the six suites. After a brief introduction (“for the first time, we present classical music at The Cave”), Matt (this was an informal show) sat down and, without any remarks, launched into the prelude of Suite No. 1, in G Major. Right from the start you could tell that he was treating this gig with as much respect and reverence as he would muster for a concert at Carnegie Hall. Playing almost at all times with eyes closed, he was intense and involved without being overly flamboyant.

Getting over the technical hurdles of these compositions is only the first step. The suites offer the performer an unlimited palate of interpretive opportunities, and that is where Matt shines. Except for the preludes, all the movements are in binary form, and Matt always took the repeats of each section. Keyboard players and guitarists tend to use these repeats, especially in baroque works, to show off their knowledge and skill in ornamentation. Matt did little, if any, of this. He used different bowings and sometimes extreme stretches of the notated rhythms, and he altered the phrasing, making his renditions truly unique and personal expressions. His range of emotion and the sound that he extracted from the instrument were astounding – in addition to the fact that there wasn’t the slightest hint of straying from perfect intonation during the entire evening. He even had many of the cellists in attendance buzzing about his playing the da capo return of Minuet I in the Second Suite as all pizzicato.

After the First Suite, Matt’s remarks to the audience showed him to be a charming and sincere young man, with, perhaps, some comedic aspirations.The Second and Third suites were played with the same personal approach and high levels of technical display. Despite the fact that this was, after all, a bar , the audience was, throughout, surprisingly quiet and attentive. There’s probably no way to know, but it would be interesting to find out who may have been “converted” by this and his other performances. The place was packed, so perhaps this might induce The Cave and some other similar establishments into doing this again with lesser-known performers.

Playing these suites requires a great expenditure of physical and emotional energy, but after a huge ovation, Matt came back on for an encore. It was ironic that after several pleas from Matt, the person in charge of sound was still not able to supply quite the power that he was asking for. He then totally blew away the audience – and perked up the ears of some who were still ignoring the whole event – by playing his arrangement of Jimi Hendrix’s version of “The Star Spangled Banner,” as given at Woodstock. He then did something you certainly would never encounter in a formal classical concert – he ran out to his car to get a score that he was to record next week and then played a new work, partially based on John Coltrane’s “A Love Supreme.” Check out his schedule to see if the “Listening Room Tour” is coming to your local tavern and don’t miss it! [Jeff Rossman]


There was more of the same the next night (March 13) at the Six String Café & Music Hall in Cary’s MacGregor Village Center. As our colleague Jeff Rossman noted above, Haimovitz’s last appearance here was on the Duke Artists Series, in October 2001, covered for CVNC by William Thomas Walker, whose review is in our archives. When my companion and I entered the Six String Café, a muscular-looking guy in jeans and with a pony-tail was working the front desk, setting out t-shirts and CDs. We mistook him, briefly, for the bouncer, but as it happened, it was the cellist, and in any event this venue doesn’t come across as needing enhanced security….

Looking around, we wondered (as Rossman did, too) how a major artist like Haimovitz can possibly do this and survive. The answer, provided after the concert and in scads of press releases, is that his commitment is funded, in part, by fees from his mainline appearances, which often occur just before or after his bar gigs. He’s not alone in doing this sort of missionary work, of course; at the local level, there’s a wonderful pianist in Carrboro – Greg McCallum – who intends to haul his Yamaha, in a trailer, to all 100 NC counties for concerts in atypical places. And in Haimovitz’s case, many bigger names are involved, from time to time, including a member of the Eroica Trio, the Miró String Quartet, and pianist Itamar Golan, one of the cellist’s partners in The Rose Album (available from the site given above), with whom he’ll play at Black Mountain’s The Grey Eagle*, one of our state’s great traditional music clubs, on April 20 (see our western calendar for details).

In Cary, in exceptionally comfortable and congenial surroundings, Haimovitz began with the Third Suite, S.1009. Sitting in overstuffed chairs within ten feet of the visitor, and with no barriers – no stage, no pit, no railing, none of the customary formal trappings of mainline concerts – was truly special. Indeed, it was very much like those long-gone days when musician friends came over to read quartets with my mother. The bottom line was that this was, often, a profoundly moving musical experience, one not routinely matched and even less rarely exceeded in traditional venues, even when world-class figures who are far senior to Haimovitz, age-wise, are involved.

There followed a group called “Bach Meets America” that included an engaging Impromptu by the artist’s other half, composer and producer Luna Pearl Woolf, David Sanford’s “Seventh Avenue Kaddish” (a reaction to 9/11), and a tango (“Omaramor”) by Osvaldo Golijov. These were realized with the same levels of commitment and emotional engagement Haimovitz brought to the Bach, which means that they were, in his hands, living, breathing things of exceptional appeal.

The “formal” part of the program (we use the adjective advisedly) ended with Bach’s Fifth Suite, played with breathtaking skill. We’ve heard this music played by some very famous cellists, including several of our local stars and people like Anner Bylsma, but never before – no, never – has the music had such a profound effect on this listener. That is surely because of Haimovitz’s artistry and the intimacy of the venue. The slow movement, in particular, was one of the most profoundly moving experiences I can recall, anywhere.

We were amused by a note in the menu – “Please keep loud talking to a minimum during performances” – but the audience was marvelous, and the staff, too, kept both talking and movement to a minimum as business activity continued. And we were delighted with the crawl over the gigantic US flag, suspended from the ceiling, that served as the backdrop for the low platform on which the cellist sat: the moving sign said, in part, “Thank you for supporting LIVE MUSIC.” Given the “stage” appointments, we were disappointed not to hear the “SSB” that we’d been told would end the concert, but in retrospect the encore, the Prelude to the Sixth Suite, provided more than ample recompense. Incidentally, Haimovitz played with unobtrusive amplification; we’ve heard much, much worse from presenters who ought to know much, much better…. The only distraction, and it was a minor one, came from the café’s air handling unit, which from time to time provided a noticeable ground bass…. The small crowd (43, at intermission, including staff) was extraordinarily attentive, but one reason for that, surely, was the large percentage of cellists and other well-known musicians and music lovers in attendance.

As Rossman has noted, these recitals were part of an extensive tour. From here, Haimovitz went on to Decatur and New Orleans, and there are more engagements in April and May. The “Rose” tour begins in mid-April and encompasses seven dates, ending (for now) in Asheville. In May, there are three programs with the Miró in Pennsylvania (alas). Along the way, Haimovitz plays “straight” in Weimar, San Francisco, Palo Alto, Versailles, and Paris. Catch him where and when you can! [John W. Lambert]

*The Grey Eagle is now located in Asheville, at 185 Clingman Avenue.

[Corrected 3/24/03.]