October 27, 2015
Students eating at Columbia University’s John Jay Dining Hall, an airy den reverberating with undergraduate chatter, were in for a surprise last Wednesday. When they walked in for dinner, they found Matt Haimovitz — the cellist who helped to start a trend by performing in places like an East Village punk club and a pizzeria in Jackson, Miss. — playing Bach.
“Are we allowed to talk, or not?” one student asked.
“I don’t know!” another answered.
Over a two-night Bachathon at Miller Theater on Thursday and Saturday, Mr. Haimovitz played the complete solo cello suites along with new works by composers commissioned to respond to Bach. But this restless innovator has long been dissatisfied with the spaces that tradition has handed down to classical performers. So on Wednesday and Friday, he played the same works in public areas around Columbia.
That allowed for an impromptu experiment. Part of me wishes I could report that the mountain came to Muhammad, that when he was playing the Suite No. 4 in the cafeteria, harried students put down their forks and phones and listened intently. He was hard to hear, so most didn’t, though everyone clapped. A few athletic types looked awkward. One jester played rock from a tinny speaker. Plenty snapped a photo or two for Instagram, or briefly pulled out their earbuds. The majority merely raised an eyebrow when they passed Mr. Haimovitz near the entrance.
It would satisfy all the promoters who have urged performers to take their music beyond the concert hall if the joggers in the university gym had stepped off their treadmills, transfixed by this man, wryly clad in shorts and running shoes, playing Philip Glass among the weights. Or if the students gathering to work through problem sets in Barnard’s Diana Center gave up and listened to Bach’s Suite No. 3, or at least didn’t pack up their belongings and move away, across the room.
But no — and that’s fine. The most satisfying thing about this project was its lack of pretension. Mr. Haimovitz has the confidence to step beyond insular, defensive debates about how to “save” classical music (from what?), change the industry’s culture (he already has) or more boldly still transform the culture around it (less my field). In his hands, Bach’s music turns into quotidian sound, a music fully part of the now.
In other words, he was just a guy, playing a cello where he wanted to play it, and playing it well.
His account of the Suite No. 5 in the children’s section of the Columbia University Bookstore was one of the most moving I have heard. It was practically a private performance, for me, for the members of the Miller’s staff following him around, for a few store employees and for a handful of illicit readers. Nobody wanted to clap after a tensely funereal closing Gigue. It felt intrusive when we did.
In the concert hall, I found Mr. Haimovitz’s Bach less than persuasive. (That’s also true of his new recording, available on Pentatone.) His style, using a modern cello but a period bow, was waspish and rhetorical, with phrases picked apart and a buzz to the sound. No cellist more consciously highlights the modern sounds in Bach’s writing, lingering over overtones, fracturing dance rhythms until they are alien, or playing with a jazzlike freedom. But this Bach was most affecting at its least interventionist, as in a searingly intense Suite No. 2, or a wonderfully simple Suite No. 1.
Asking today’s composers to react to Bach is a dubious idea. Can’t they stand on their own? Can’t Bach? And why should they, in the listener’s ear, be forced into a comparison with him? But in this case, each of the new works convinced on its own terms.
Mr. Haimovitz requested overtures in classically operatic fashion, and each of six composers took the commission in a different direction. Vijay Iyer’s brilliantly kinetic “Run,” for the Suite No. 3, seemed to nod to all of Bach’s movements in a sprint of pulsating energy. Mohammed Fairouz’s “Gabriel” evoked the sadness of angels, just like the Suite No. 5.
Three composers more obviously used the dance rhythms of world music in their responses, whether Caribbean salsa in Roberto Sierra’s clever “La Memoria,” Serbian chant in Du Yun’s agonizing “The Veil of Veronica” or Hawaiian chant, thumped out percussively on the cello’s body in Luna Pearl Woolf’s “Lili’uokalani” for the cello piccolo required in the Suite No. 6. Most powerful of all, though, was Mr. Glass’s “Overture to Bach,” more a counterpoint to the perky Suite No. 1 than a summary of it, suffused with sadness and yet yearning for something more.