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Know the rules before you break them. Life lessons from Matt Haimovitz / theStrad

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The US cellist on how a disciplined early approach enabled him to embrace the possibilities of new experiences

Renowned as a musical pioneer, multi-Grammy-nominated cellist MATT HAIMOVITZ is praised by The New York Times as a “ferociously talented cellist who brings his megawatt sound and uncommon expressive gifts to a vast variety of styles” and by The New Yorker as “remarkable virtuoso” who “never turns in a predictable performance.” He brings a fresh ear to familiar repertoire, champions new music, and initiates groundbreaking collaborations, as well as creating innovative recording projects. In addition to his touring schedule, Haimovitz mentors an award-winning studio of young cellists at the Schulich School of Music of McGill University in Montreal and is now the first-ever John Cage Fellow at The New School's Mannes School of Music in New York City.

Haimovitz made his debut in 1984, at the age of 13, as soloist with Zubin Mehta and the Israel Philharmonic. At 17 he made his first recording with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, for Deutsche Grammophon. He has gone on to perform on the world’s most esteemed stages, with such orchestras and conductors as the Berlin Philharmonic, the New York Philharmonic with Zubin Mehta, the English Chamber Orchestra with Daniel Barenboim, the Boston Symphony Orchestra with Leonard Slatkin, and the Orchestre Symphonique de Montréal with Kent Nagano.

Haimovitz’s recording career encompasses more than 20 years of award-winning work on Deutsche Grammophon (Universal), Oxingale Records, and the PENTATONE Oxingale Series. His honors include the Trailblazer Award from the American Music Center, the Avery Fisher Career Grant, the Grand Prix du Disque, and the Premio Internazionale “Accademia Musicale Chigiana.” He studied with Leonard Rose at the Juilliard School and graduated magna cum laude with highest honors from Harvard University. Haimovitz plays a Venetian cello, made in 1710 by Matteo Gofriller.

Matt Haimovitz writes…..Irene Sharp, my first teacher in Palo Alto, was unbelievably organised with her approach. Unfortunately for her, I had a voracious appetite for knowledge and wanted to know everything all at once! She had wonderful animal metaphors for playing: things a child could implement and feel instantly. After a year with her I started studying with Gábor Rejto, firstly in Stanford and then in Los Angeles when I was ten years old. Every other week, my mother and I would fly to LA for a few days of intensive lessons with him.

Bach became a part of the diet right away. It was interesting to dive straight into this old school of music making at such a young age. Inspired by his teacher Casals, Gábor also taught me the inseparability of music and technique. He instilled in me the sense of a larger goal. I then began studying with Leonard Rose at the Juilliard pre-college division. For me, his greatest quality was his demonstrations. I’ve never heard a cellist sound like that, and it became my ideal. He could articulate every aspect of sound production and convey it to the students. His discipline was also very inspiring. For him, waking up and immediately doing hours of practice was just as habitual as brushing his teeth!

There’s always someone who knows more than you do

Rose wasn’t a fan of 20th-century music so he and I worked largely on Romantic repertoire. When I finally discovered contemporary work it opened up a whole new world – one that I didn’t fully understand but absolutely loved. I still remember when I first walked into Princeton, where I studied for a year, and met Milton Babbitt. We debated about why contemporary music could even compete with the great classics. I started asking a lot of questions, but I am still grateful to have been given the solid fundamentals of playing early in life: know the rules before you break them.

Photo: David Brendan Hall

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