Matt Haimovitz has seen and been to the top of the mountain of classical music, and decided that he prefers the lower altitudes where it is accessible to more people. This remarkable young cellist has voluntarily abandoned, at least for now, what most aspiring artists would give their eye teeth for: a successful, traditional concert career. He has traded in venues like Carnegie Hall, for small bars, and rock and jazz clubs, whose regular patrons would most likely not know a fugue from a fig. While most artists play dives and travel around long distances by car with the dream of one day “making it” and not having to do those kinds of tours anymore, Haimovitz has reversed that sequence. I would imagine that many of his colleagues wonder why.

Last year I had the pleasure of hearing Haimovitz at The Cave in Chapel Hill where I experienced an artist play Bach with the same reverence and passion as you would expect in a formal concert hall. Listen to his love of this music pour out of his cello, and you will know in an instant why he is doing this.

On July 15th, as part of the Eastern Music Festival, Haimovitz played a similar program at an establishment called Skybar in Greensboro. It is doubtful that any other musician of his caliber has also played in a venue where there are signs posted all over warning you that by entering these premises you have consented to be searched at any time for weapons or drugs. Oh well, this is the purpose of his “Anthem” tour: to bring the Bach Cello Suites, and some very modern works, to places and people who normally wouldn’t be exposed to this type of music. The tour began on September 11, 2003 and his goal is to play in all 50 states, with 15 left to go.

Judging by the two “Anthem” concerts that I have heard, the majority of the audience is people who are already quite familiar with this type of music, and the ambient bar-like noise is kept to a minimum. Despite this, Haimovitz plays into a microphone through an excellent soundboard – louder, but no electronic edge. After an introduction by an official of the Eastern Music Festival, Matt bounded up the steps of a high, small stage, sat down, gathered his sense of the music he was about to play, and launched into Bach’s First Cello Suite in G major. All of these suites, like much of Bach’s works, have very little, if any, tempo, dynamic, or phrasing indications. Interpretation and bowing is wide open, and if you can convincingly play your “version” of these works, then it cannot be “wrong.” One of the great things about Haimovitz (his phenomenal technique and tone are a given) is that he is not satisfied with a final, finished version of these works. Each performance brings something new and different, and even the repeats of the binary dance forms are often more like variations rather than strict “do overs.”

After the playing of the Gigue concluded the first suite, Haimovitz spoke to the audience for the first time, explaining about his tour, Bach, and the Second Suite in d minor, which was up next. This is perhaps the most personal and introspective of the six suites, and it was played with an almost spiritual approach that at times made you feel as if you were intruding on a very personal dialogue. He made you truly understand what many say but few can demonstrate: that there is always something more to discover within these great works.

After a break for overpriced drinks, we quickly moved from the early 18th to the very early 21st century, with several contemporary works for unaccompanied cello, each one sounding progressively more impossible to play by mere musical mortals. These were all taken from the CD Anthem , released on his own Oxingale label. They ranged from a typically raga-like composition from the pen of Lou Harrison, to “Seventh Avenue Kaddish,” a work based on themes from John Coltrane’s “A Love Supreme” that also portrays a musical reaction to the events of September 11, 2001. Another 9/11 inspired work was “9:11 Blues” by Toby Twining, a composer who usually writes for voices. Much of this work consisted of harmonics past the end of the fingerboard, and it was frightening to even think of what the notation of this looked like on paper.

For a while, the Kronos Quartet, despite their prodigious output, became known mostly for their version of Jimi Hendrix’s “Purple Haze.” Much in the same way, Haimovitz’s “greatest hit” is quickly becoming his uncannily dead-on rendition of “The Star-Spangled Banner” as performed by Hendrix at the Woodstock Festival in 1969. Some of his more political comments regarding his reasons for playing this piece in this manner unfortunately led to a group of people walking out – their loss. It was also interesting to hear his comment that he thought Bach and Hendrix were similar in a lot of ways, and that they would have liked each other.

After the “rockets red glare” exploded throughout Skybar, Haimovitz returned for several encores – all movements from the Bach suites. This was an evening of cello playing that is as good as it gets. We are fortunate that Haimovitz has been to our state many times in the past few years. Best of luck to him as he shortly begins a new chapter in his remarkable career: Professor of Cello at McGill University in Montreal.