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Fervent Excellence

August 5, 2008

In the world of fine cello soloists, Matt Haimovitz has to be a leading adventurer. There he was at the Cabrillo Festival of Contemporary Music Sunday night in the Santa Cruz Civic Auditorium, performing a solo recital of prodigiously challenging pieces that many of his colleagues may never have heard of. And performing them with flair and passion as if this were core repertory.
It was startling how a single cello could dominate such a space with music whose range reached a frenzied intensity and produced skeins of quarter-tones. His concentrated fervency and of course his command and often glowing tone made it all persuasive.

Ned Rorem's After Reading Shakespeare (1981) led off engagingly with a strongly shaped lyricism, nine movements prompted by lines from King Lear, Midsummer Night's Dream, The Tempest, Henry V, two of the sonnets, and others. These are warmly expressive studies of contrasting character, one a soliloquy, another a kind of dialogue for one.

Gordon Getty, whose immersion in Shakespeare inspired some of his own compositions, read the lines before each movement with a stage quality, interpreting as an actor.

The late Carlos Gardel, a tango singer of Argentina, was the subject of a musical tribute by Osvaldo Golijov, Omaramor (Omar ... amor) (2000), taking off freely from a Gardel song, My Beloved Argentina. The feeling for it through highly contrasting mutations evolved in Haimovitz' ardent performance. Next was Seventh Avenue Kaddish (2002), commissioned of the composer David Sanford and premiered by Haimovitz for a 9/11 memorial. Sanford's approach to contemporary music is through the lens and sound of jazz, specifically the big band or stage band. Here, the acknowledged and audible influence is saxophonist John Coltrane. Seventh Avenue Kaddish searches through the immeasurable and feverish responses to the tragedy with extremes of contrast.

The cello played in quick flashes, impulsively, with the suggestion of a cantorial cantillation, in wide-ranging, scurrying passages, as if in fright, with tremolos and double-stop passages fiercely attacked, and finally a mournful meditation.
Going to the Edge
The final and most advanced work was by the French-Canadian composer Gilles Tremblay, Cèdres et voiles (Thrène pour le Liban) [Cedars and sails (Threnody for Lebanon)], 1989. It is for solo cello but sounds as if played by several. Successions of quarter-tones press the line tightly. Haimovitz went to the edge in producing the forced sounds and scrapings called for and, with all the polyphony involved, achieved the effect of multiple instruments. Floating harmonics draw the work to a haunting close. It's a challenging work, demanding the most from a cellist, as well as from the listener in terms of the difficulty in grasping the structure (quite possibly, that is its weakness).

Haimovitz responded to the effusive applause of the sizable audience with two encores. The first revealed his activist side, his announcement alluding to the national situation, his performance making clear the heavy sardonic and caustic qualities of the work that he then played, Jimi Hendrix' musical caricature of The Star-Spangled Banner in Haimovitz' arrangement. The second was the Sarabande of Bach's First Suite for Cello Unaccompanied, played with a distinctive interpretation, and breath between phrases rather than linking for longer phrase and continuity. It had a thoughtful, poetic quality.

One not admirable feature of the recital was the imposition of an electronics performer/composer, Mason Bates, who provided transitions between the cello selections via a synthesizer and other electronic means. This provided a continuity not unlike the spacey mind-syrup with which spas bathe patrons during massage, sauna, and other relaxations. Terrible idea. The Rorem, Golijov, Sanford, and Tremblay, in styles insulted by this gooey wallpaper, wanted space between for contemplation and preparation.

Robert P. Commanday, founding editor of San Francisco Classical Voice, was the music critic of The San Francisco Chronicle from 1965 to 1993, and before that a conductor and lecturer at UC Berkeley.