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Cello for the people: Matt Haimovitz.

An Intimate Evening
By B.A. Nilsson

Matt Haimovitz and Itamar Golan
Caffe Lena, April 16

Even before cellist Matt Haimovitz applied bow to strings, the small but ardent Caffe Lena audience was prepared for a very different experience. You don’t often see a cello travel down the aisle to the stage in that venue; you don’t often hear a classical music performer in any venue speak as casually and compellingly as Haimovitz.

He and pianist Itamar Golan collaborated on a recently released CD that pays tribute to Haimovitz’s mentor, legendary cellist Leonard Rose. Two of the works on the Caffe Lena program appear on that CD; the rest of the program would make an equally appealing recording.

Chamber music ostensibly started out in small chambers, and this hall is as intimate as they come, a perfect environment for cello and piano. Given the world-class talent of these artists, who have impressive international careers, it can’t have been the most economically feasible stop on their itinerary, but what a boon for the audience!

Haimovitz opened the program with Five Pieces in Folk Style, Op. 102, by Schumann—a suitable beginning, he suggested, for a recital in a folk haven. He also explained that it’s a work that Rose shied away from because of some tricky double-stops in the third piece.

They were no challenge for Haimovitz, who also honored the Romantic characteristics of that movement with well-applied portamento and rhythmic effects. All five of the component pieces sound more Schumannesque than outright folklike, but that’s an indication of how thoroughly classical music used to mine folk-music elements.

The opening piece, marked “Mit Humor,” kicks into a lively dance that Haimovitz colored, in its restatement, with a sul tasto (bowing on the fingerboard) effect that’s just one of the many interpretive techniques he brings to his playing.

Robert Stern’s Hazkarah was written in 1998, a memorial for genocides and holocausts past and present, drawing inspiration from Ruth Bondy’s Elder of the Jew: Jakob Edelstein of Thereisenstadt—in particular, as Haimovitz explained, the line “They died because they were not allowed to live.” With the concert falling the first day of Passover during a time when more butchery is staining the Middle East, it was especially poignant.

It’s a brooding work with outcries of passion reminiscent of Bloch, but with more abstraction in its melodic lines. During its 10 minutes it draws you into an increasingly molten emotional state, finishing with a solo cry from the cello, and it seemed to have been the most troublesome to its listeners according to my intermission eavesdropping. But this is exactly what music needs to do to stay alive: What good is it if it’s unchallenging?

The first half finished with Chopin’s Polonaise brilliante, a virtuoso piece in two sections that set the cello ablaze and also allowed the piano to cut loose. Golan was nothing short of masterful, sure-fingered, colorful, secure. He had a challenge trying to bully and wheedle far more sound from the Caffe’s upright than the poor instrument could produce.

One work dominated the second half: Shostakovich’s Cello Sonata, Op. 40. Again, Haimovitz talked a bit about the piece before playing it, and I wish more performers had the confidence and personality to do the same. It really helped prep the audience.

Drawing much of its thematic material from film scores he’d written, Shostakovich wove it into a four- movement sonata that’s a characteristic ride from cynical ebullience to lyrical despair. And he’s not sparing in the challenges. The first movement’s martial flavor sent the cello from a rough-toned passage into a web of beautiful arpeggios; in the second, cello and piano chased each other with a perpetual-motion figure. The largo that followed showed off more of Golan’s superb lyricism, and the piece finished off with a hilarious, touching movement originally written to accompany an animated film about a hapless drunk.

Following clamorous calls for more, the duo encored with an arrangement of the opening of Bloch’s Scenes from Hassidic Life, a tender work that brought the concert to a quiet close.

“Crossover” music is all the rage with the faltering classical-music CD labels, who try to package pop stuff into easily digestible, NPR-friendly packages. If we had more crossover performances like this, the music world wouldn’t be in so much trouble.

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