Haimovitz And Burleson: A Classic 'Odd Couple'

Music from Odd Couple

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Cellist Matt Haimovitz and pianist Geoffrey Burleson collaborate on their new recording, The Odd Couple. hide caption

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Matt Haimovitz and Geoffrey Burleson perform the repertoire of composers David Sanford, Samuel Barber, Elliott Carter and Augusta Read Thomas. Courtesy of the artist hide caption

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Matt Haimovitz and Geoffrey Burleson 300

Matt Haimovitz and Geoffrey Burleson perform the repertoire of composers David Sanford, Samuel Barber, Elliott Carter and Augusta Read Thomas.

Courtesy of the artist

Matt Haimovitz may not fit some people's perceptions of a traditional classical musician. Early in his career, the virtuoso cellist performed in atypical venues such as bars and pizza joints, but his unique tone and approach to the instrument — and its standard repertoire — earned high praise.

While primarily known for his recordings of Bartok and Bach's Suites for Cello, Haimovitz has also gained a reputation by livening up his performances with stirring renditions of Jimi Hendrix's version of "The Star Spangled Banner" and his four-cello arrangement of Led Zeppelin's "Kashmir." He has since become one of the most in-demand and exciting young performers in classical music.

Haimovitz's latest project, Odd Couple, is a collaboration with pianist Geoffrey Burleson, on which they play the repertoire of composers David Sanford, Samuel Barber, Elliott Carter and Augusta Read Thomas.

After studies at Princeton and Harvard — and instruction from legendary cellists Yo-Yo Ma and Leonard Rose — Haimovitz founded his own record label, Oxingale, and is a professor of cello at McGill University in Montreal, a position he has held since 2004. He also maintains a nonstop touring schedule, appearing solo, performing with his all-cello band Uccello, and currently collaborating with Burleson in support of Odd Couple.

Studying at the Peabody and New England Conservatories and Stony Brook University under Gilbert Kalish, Burleson is currently teaches piano at Princeton University. He also serves as Assistant Professor of Piano and the Director of Performance Studies at Hunter College of the City University of New York. Burleson typically performs and records as a solo pianist and most recently with Vincent Persichetti's Complete Piano Sonatas.

Here, the two men discuss their musical partnership and perform selections from their new recording in NPR's Studio 4A.

Cellist Haimovitz: Classic Bach, Classic Rock

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Haimovitz Meets Led Zeppelin

Hear Haimovitz's four-cello ensemble, Uccello, play his arrangement of Led Zeppelin's "Kashmir" from the CD "Goulash!"

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Matt Haimovitz plays classical music in New York City's Grand Central Station, one of the cellist's many unorthodox performance venues. H. Thomson/Artspromo hide caption

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Cellist Matt Haimovitz

Matt Haimovitz plays classical music in New York City's Grand Central Station, one of the cellist's many unorthodox performance venues.

H. Thomson/Artspromo

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."

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