Last night, I attended cellist Matt Haimovitz's first concert in a series of three, entitled Goulasch! The series' overarching theme is the exploration in various forms of the music of (and related to, in differing ways) Béla Bartók. Last night, Bartók was manifest as composer (the Romanian Dances and Rhapsodie No. 1, both arranged for four cellos - Haimovitz and three of his students, aka Uccello - by Luna Pearl Woolf), aspiring folklorist/ethnomusicologist (the improvisations and songs of Turkish folk Ensemble Constantinople), and guiding figure for Ligeti (Sonata for Solo Cello). Also performed were Tod Machover's Dadaji in Paradise, and Led Zeppelin's Kashmir. The performance was one continuous set, bridged by the soundscapes of DJ Olive.
It was an impressive effort. Haimovitz is a true virtuoso - he has terrific command of the instrument, fantastic intonation, control of extended technique, and most importantly, phenomenal musicianship. He was obviously engaged in his playing, head bobbing, hair flying, egging on Olive and his students. He is a surprisingly strong improviser, as evidenced by the opening variations on the Turkish folksongs Bartók recorded. Interacting with both Olive and Constantinople, Haimovitz demonstrated his capacity for matching and/or complementing sounds on a whim. I was reminded of violinist Mark Feldman - although Feldman has substantially more background and experience in improvising (especially that of jazz improvising). I wished to hear more interaction between Olive and the rest of the musicians - his soundscapes were magnificently "illbient," and his samples well-chosen, but I know his improvising work with Billy Martin and Dave Douglas and wanted to hear him contribute a little bit more. As well, I know that at least one of Haimovitz's students in Uccello, Judith Manger, is a solid improviser in her own right and it would have been intriguing if Haimovitz had gotten his students involved in that aspect of the concert as well. The coda of "Kashmir" had this air of collective fun, with cellos being slapped percussively and DJ Olive even scratching vinyl laughter towards the end.
There seems to be a new wave of young McGill professors (Haimovitz, Shawn Mativetsky) injecting a dose of open-mindedness, inventiveness, and engagement into the conservatory proceedings. Too often in music schools, concerts get bogged down in their own artistic pretensions and somewhat repetitive or predictable programming. The audience, too, needs to be thrown a few curveballs. The concert was held on the unfinished seventh floor of the new music building (quite possibly the only concert that will ever be held there, as it's slated to house offices when McGill finds the money for completion), and while waiting in line for the elevator I heard the requisite bad jokes about "Hey, we must be going to a rave; there's a DJ!" The producer from CBC noted that this might be the first time a turntablist has been involved in one of these concerts. So much the better. I'm graduating this year, so I won't get to experience much of the future progress, but I do know that the performance department is finally starting to give improvisation its due credit (promoting the Contemporary Improvisation Ensemble, supporting improvising master classes). I hope that in the near future they will embrace the new aesthetics of chamber music and bring up Alarm Will Sound or Vijay Iyer's collaborations with Mike Ladd.