COLUMBIA — Matt Haimovitz is a cellist with a mission.
Performing traditional music in traditional venues wasn’t doing it for him. He wanted to prove classical music is still relevant, and he wasn’t reaching enough people. By sticking solely to concert halls, he felt he was doing a disservice to classical music.
So Haimovitz kept his cello in hand and turned to more contemporary musicians, like Jimi Hendrix and Led Zeppelin, to breathe modern life into a genre of music that’s been around for hundreds of years.
“Ninety-nine percent of society thinks of classical music as being irrelevant, but what I’m saying is this is as relevant as any other genre out there,” Haimovitz said. “Classical music is as necessary today as it ever was. Embracing other genres and changing context lets people know that it’s relevant.”
Haimovitz embraces other genres and changes context by playing in venues that are nontraditional for a cellist. He was the first classical artist to play at New York’s CBGB club, which is known for showcasing underground music, and he often chooses to perform in clubs, coffee shops and restaurants rather than in concert halls.
“I try to bring a sense of intimacy. You’re with the audience, you’re talking to them,” Haimovitz said. “We’re bringing a sense of vulnerability to the concert hall and bringing the standards of the concert hall back to the club.”
When he comes to Columbia this Wednesday and Saturday for the Missouri Theatre Center for the Arts’ Hot Summer Nights Music Festival, he will bring the best of both worlds. Rock ’n’ roll fans can unite with classical music aficionados, bound by the musical stylings of Haimovitz and the Missouri Symphony Orchestra.
Wednesday, Haimovitz and the orchestra are set to perform nontraditional music with a “club feel,” such as some of David Sanford’s unique compositions. Haimovitz will also perform several solo pieces, including some Jimi Hendrix and Led Zeppelin. Saturday, however, he will stay more traditional with a Schumann cello concerto.
As of Tuesday afternoon, tickets for both shows were still available.
Although he has never played in Columbia, Haimovitz enjoys performing in college towns because there are often people who already enjoy classical music, he said.
“One of the richest aspects of life is the college town experience,” Haimovitz said. “I go throughout the country, and there’s such a sense of energy. They’re generally more often the places where you have folks challenging what’s going on in the world and speaking their mind, and they have the resources to back that up.”
Haimovitz won’t be playing any of the more intimate shows he’s known for while he’s in Columbia, but he will stay true to his edgy side when he plays Friday in Kansas City at The Brick, a restaurant that features live music nightly.
Though Haimovitz gained most of his fame pioneering “rock” cello, his cello career has classical roots. When his music teacher couldn’t play and needed a substitute for a Carnegie Hall concert, the then 13-year-old Haimovitz stepped up, making his presence known in the classical music community.
Since then, Haimovitz has done more than a dozen recording projects and co-founded Oxingale Records with his wife and composer Luna Pearl Woolf. His record, “Anthem,” was the best classical album of 2003 on Amazon.com.
Haimovitz has incorporated rock ‘n’ roll, jazz and other contemporary genres into his music, redefining what it means to play cello because, he said, he was not content with the audience he was reaching.
“I wasn’t fully satisfied with how we were experiencing the classical tradition,” Haimovitz said. “I wasn’t sure we were getting all that we should out of this experience. I too often felt (for the audience) it was about putting on a nice suit and going out and not really engaging in a serious way.”
Despite his forays outside of classical music, Haimovitz still considers himself a classical musician because he’s most immersed in the genre, he said.
His gutsy approach to classical music has earned him the title “cellist without borders,” which he takes as a compliment.
“I’ve been called worse things,” Haimovitz said, jokingly. “It suggests I’m fearless about going into unknown territories. I don’t know that I’m fearless, but I have the courage to overcome my fears and venture into unknown territories.”
Haimovitz doesn’t let success go to his head.
“I don’t know if I really think about that too much,” Haimovitz said. “Hopefully, I’ve made things easier for the next generation because we had to figure out everything on our own.”
Haimovitz may have made great advances and caused a stir in the musical community, but he won’t brag about his accomplishments. Despite being well-known throughout the music world, he retains an air of modesty.
“We see it (change), but it’s definitely small-scale still,” Haimovitz said. “In terms of my artistic life, there’s so much I want to get done that I need a lifetime to get it done.”