Mellow Cello

This past Halloween, after his 7:00 p.m. sound check but well before his 10:00 p.m. solo performance at the 400 Bar, a Minneapolis rock club, classical music cellist Matt Haimovitz found himself with two hours to kill. "I didn't know what to do between 8:00 and 10:00," he recalls, speaking on the phone from his home in Northampton, Massachusetts. "There weren't a whole lot of restaurants or anything in that area to hang out. I was downstairs in the basement -- that was my 'green room' -- and there was no bathroom down there, just a drain in the floor. So I went upstairs, and I asked the promoter, 'So what do you do about ... you know?' And he started telling me the history of what goes on in that room before shows. Let's just say the drain comes in handy."

That experience should amply prepare the 33-year-old Haimovitz for his upcoming gig at Churchill's, a pit stop on his ongoing 50-state tour in support of Anthem -- his new album of solo recordings of works by contemporary American composers -- begun September 11 in Seattle.

After sixteen years of performances in classical music concert halls worldwide with orchestras from Boston to Berlin, Haimovitz, in November 2000, decided to experiment with the artist/audience dynamic; he played a release party for his 6 Suites for Cello Solo by Bach at a venerable Northampton folk club. "I was looking for a venue where people could feel relaxed," he explains, "be able to eat and drink, and not suffer through four hours of music. We had a wonderful mix: people who would never go into a concert hall, and classical music lovers who always wanted to go to this venue but never had a reason to."

The Bach Listening Room tour ensued, with gigs at coffeehouses, taverns, museums, wherever. "It helped me to bring out the intimate, subtle side of the music," notes Haimovitz, "rather than having to project in a really large concert hall."

For his Anthem tour he has upped the ante, seeking even more nontraditional settings: "I wanted to take this music to an even younger audience, or at least expose it to younger people." By "this music," he means pieces by living composers "who deal with issues that are so urgent and so relevant to today" such as 9/11. He also weaves Bach selections into his set, not forgetting his solo cello take on Jimi Hendrix's version of The Star-Spangled Banner.

Haimovitz has attracted a diverse group, "from twentysomethings through seventysomethings," he says. "There's a wonderful electricity to have people who wouldn't normally come together listening to this music, and doing so in a very unprejudiced, open way, just absorbing what it's dealing with. People are close enough so that they can touch it, feel it, and laugh when it's appropriate, or cry, or respond to it in whatever way they want to."

Club audiences, he adds, have been "incredibly respectful." No one shooting pool. No clinking beer-bottle salutes. "For this kind of music with a solo cello, I think people realize that it's something different. It does take, of course, a level of attention and concentration from whomever is there, and I think people make that effort and meet me halfway."

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Michael Yockel