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Cellist Finds New Market for Classical Music

  • Nancy Cohen

It's not easy to find a new market for something 300 years old. But Matt Haimovitz, 34, has done just that. After years of performing in large concert halls, the cellist is bringing Bach - specifically his cello suites -- to rock, punk and folk clubs... where audiences unschooled in classical music are embracing it. The music fills and fits these small, intimate settings.

Matt Haimovitz was a child prodigy who played Carnegie Hall at 13, and signed with a major record label 3 years later. But he began to feel disconnected performing for thousands of people. He recalls "having a very cold feeling… I mean it was a build-up of experiences of that sort that got me moving in a different direction."

The direction was towards smaller venues… where most members of the audience don't know Bach from Bernstein. Tracy Granger is typical. She says she thinks about classical music as something from college. "I took like a musical appreciation course. I never listened to it any more than that."

Ms. Granger usually comes to The Windham, a tiny club in Bellows Falls, Vermont, to hear folk music. But on this night, Matt Haimovitz is performing. He says he prefers small rooms like this for the Bach cello suites. "Often I play them for myself," he says. "It's a form of meditation and reflection, and in a way, space like this allows me to share that without having to project it to the last seat of a concert hall."

The cellist still plays in large concert halls -- where he can get paid 5 times more than in a club. And he still holds down a day job, teaching at McGill University.

On the tiny stage, Mr. Haimovitz embraces his cello like a good friend, his ponytail bobbing, bow strutting across the strings. He draws in his new audience by telling about Bach's life: how the composer came home from a trip and learned his wife had died, just months after they'd lost a baby. He adds, "I don't know whether this next suite in D Minor is an epitaph for them or not, but it's certainly a profound expression of loss."

Afterwards the audience buys Haimovitz's CDs: Music by Bach and new composers they may not know. He's connecting, says Helen Kim, who helps young musicians build their careers. "He's met what classical music presenters crave in an audience," she explains, "the young and hip, and the way he's done that is by meeting them on their own turf."

Ms. Kim says, with 14,000 music students graduating ever year, the supply of musicians exceeds the demand. She agrees with Matt Haimovitz: the best way to sell yourself is know yourself. The musician says he had to follow his own path, and laughs. "In doing that I probably have managed to brand myself in a better way, in a more powerful long-lasting way then any marketing genius could have."

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