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Don't look Bach 

Matt Haimovitz brings baroque cello suites to a folk club

March 14, Eddie's Attic -- The last time cellist Matt Haimovitz performed in town, it was in the enormous Fox Theater. Then age 15, the budding prodigy performed as a soloist with Zubin Mehta and the Israel Philharmonic as a last-minute replacement for veteran pianist Claudio Arrau, who cancelled because his wife had become seriously ill. He played to a near-capacity audience.

Now 32, Haimowitz, as a matured musician, hits the road in the manner of a modern troubadour, playing Johann Sebastian Bach's solo cello suites in coffeehouses and other locations more accustomed to the sounds of folk guitars and singer/songwriters or rock bands. Such was the case last Friday at Eddie's Attic in Decatur, where -- though the space could have fit into the Fox many times over -- Haimovitz again played to a near-capacity crowd.

It's not to say that Haimovitz has left the symphonic circuit. Late this May, he will make appearances with Mehta and the Israel Philharmonic in France. He is also booked to perform with a handful of other orchestras, such as Germany's Weimar Staatskapelle Orchestra and the Palo Alto Chamber Orchestra. But many of his solo and chamber music performances are in alternative venues, far from the fur and lavender crowd.

On the one hand, it's an artistic mission for Haimovitz to bring classical music to alternative venues, while expanding on the repertoire with which the "classical" keeps close company. On the other hand, there's also a very practical aspect of the venture, given not only difficult economic times but also the changing forces in today's music industry that make such innovation necessary.

Haimovitz arrived at Eddie's Attic not long before the 7 p.m. program was to begin, having endured not only an extended drive from North Carolina, but the baptism by fire of Atlanta's snarly traffic. After a bit of warmup in a far corner beyond the bar, a quick microphone placement and cursory volume adjustment, he launched into the first of Johann Sebastian Bach's suites for solo cello, and by the third movement had shaken off any observable traces of automobile-lag. That's not to suggest that the opening movement was poor, but the third movement was when the really personal engagement with the music had taken over, and from there steadily increased in depth to the end of the concert.

Haimovitz' playing is historically informed, but aware of the present moment; robust and articulate, but also expressive and intimate without losing tensile strength. And the Bach suites, the first three of which were the main body of the evening's music, are capably suited to presentation in an alternative space like Eddie's Attic. That is, they're not hothouse flowers that can only flourish under limited ideal conditions.

Ideal conditions, to most classical musicians, often means a performance space that does not require amplification. But despite the lack a thorough sound check, the Attic's experience and dedication to acoustic music paid off well. In this situation, amplification works best when it doesn't draw attention to itself, but enhances the presence of the natural sound without feeling unduly "electronic." It came off very well -- and one can think of enough "guitar-and-microphone" bars in town where it would not.

Absent printed programs (they were unnecessary), Haimovitz talked between suites like a folk musician, taking a short break between the second and third.

"Bach would have gotten a kick out of electric guitars," said Haimovitz from the stage at one point. As if to prove it, he concluded the show with a transcription of Jimi Hendrix's famed rendition of "The Star Spangled Banner," including wildly wonderful, expressive electric-guitar-like sounds. That the anthem itself is really a minuet, a kind of dance found in the first two of Bach's cello suites, makes for an interesting connection across the centuries.

Old Bach probably would have felt quite at home.

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