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Cellist thrives on chemistry with students

Israeli-born cellist Matt Haimovitz made his professional debut at 13 as a soloist with the Israel Philharmonic. In a three-decade career, he’s made his mark in the classical music scene, collaborating with legends like Leonard Rose and Issac Stern, along with contemporary giants like Phillip Glass and Christopher O’Reilly.

In the early 2000s, he made a different mark, when he launched a series of tours bringing the Cello Suites of Johann Sebastian Bach and other famed works of chamber music to coffeehouses, pubs and nightclubs, including New York’s famed CBGB.

He also makes a mark as a teacher, serving on the faculty of McGill University’s Schulich School of Music in Montreal. It’s in this capacity that he’s making his first visit to Spokane next week.

Haimovitz will be the guest soloist with the Gonzaga University Symphony, under the direction of Kevin Hekmatpanah. They’ll be tackling Samuel Barber’s Cello Concerto, which premiered in 1946, performed by the Boston Symphony Orchestra.

In a telephone interview from the McGill campus, Haimovitz said the Barber isn’t performed all that often, so he relishes the opportunity to play what he calls one of the seminal American 20th century concertos.

“It’s not programmed as much as the Dvorak or the Elgar cello concertos,” Haimovitz said. “I feel like it’s underrated and really belongs in the pantheon of cello concertos. It’s great writing, very virtuosic for the cello. It was written in 1945, so it’s kind of a post-Second World War piece with all kinds of elements from that period. I feel it really speaks to our time now.”

One thing that Haimovitz finds interesting is looking at how a composer works the solo instrument – in this case, the cello – with the whole orchestra. With this concerto, Barber is “expanding the whole range” of the cello, he said, and at times leaves the cello alone, then he begins dialogue and relationships with other instruments on stage.

He points to a part toward the end of the final movement, when just as the orchestra reaches it’s biggest climax, the cello comes in and the orchestra stops.

“And there’s something very powerful about that, to have 100 people on stage, sitting there while there’s only one voice doing all the work,” Haimovitz said. “In that moment, there’s something both oppressive and liberating at the same time.”

Getting to explore this work and these ideas with students from a different schools is a big attraction, said Haimovitz, who recently turned 45. He’s doing more and more of it, he said, because he loves it.

“There’s an energy level that’s really fun to play with, especially after you’ve been going around playing concertos for what seems a lifetime, 20 or 30 years,” he added with a laugh. “I personally love playing concertos and chamber music with young people.”

While he learns from his students, his ultimate goal is to impart his knowledge and experiences. Still, the awe and enthusiasm he senses from students is contagious, he said.

“I might have played the Barber 20 or 30 or 40 times in the past, but I’m sure these students are playing it for the first time,” Haimovitz said. “There’s a kind of chemistry that I love. I’m eager to do this more and more.”

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