It has been an eventful few months for cellist Matt Haimovitz. He began the year touring with pianist Christopher O’Riley in support of the duo’s recent CD, “Shuffle.Play.Listen,” whose tracklist ranges from Janacek and Stravinsky to arrangements of Blonde Redhead and Cocteau Twins. In March he gave the world premiere of Philip Glass’s Second Cello Concerto with the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra. When not on the road, he’s usually occupied with teaching students at McGill University in Montreal, where he is a professor in the music school.
Those three activities — collaboration, new music, and teaching — are important facets of what this intrepid artist is all about. But it is Haimovitz’s solo cello performances — like the one he’ll play on Thursday at the Gardner Museum — that seem to capture his creative energy in its purest state, allowing him to range over material accumulated over a career defined by a refusal to heed boundaries of genre, venue, or audience expectations.
“There’s something meditative or soul-searching about the solo program and the way it evolves,” said Haimovitz by phone from Illinois, where he was to play a Saint-Saëns concerto with the Elgin Symphony Orchestra. “It’s a kind of personal exhibition, in a way. And it’s also easy to travel with the instrument. It’s been the most mobile thing that I’ve done.”
Haimovitz’s most recent visit to Boston was a February Regattabar show with O’Riley. The pairing of Haimovitz, who’d gotten a lot of mileage from his cello arrangement of Jimi Hendrix’s “Star-Spangled Banner,” and O’Riley, famed for his piano versions of Radiohead and Nick Drake songs, seems a natural one. They knew and admired each other’s work but didn’t play together until a year and a half ago, at a show in Billings, Mont.
With just three days to put together a program, they discovered an immediate affinity. “It just clicked. We just completely lost track of time. It’s just one of those rare occasions where you work with someone and you’re just immersed.”
The Glass project was more unusual, as Haimovitz’s tastes in new music run more toward maximalism than minimalism. “If I could premiere an Elliott Carter [piece] every month I’d be happy,” he said. So he was surprised to get a call from Glass about working together. Still, Haimovitz is deeply enamored of the new work, which originates in music Glass wrote for the film “Naqoyqatsi” a decade ago.
“I think he’s one of the great film composers of all time,” Haimovitz said. “So the idea of playing a score like that, and then liberating it and letting it breathe on its own on stage — I really looked forward to that.” The concerto was originally planned to be a 25-minute piece but ended up closer to 40 — partly, the cellist said, because he kept asking for more repeats. Haimovitz laughed when it was suggested that he is possibly the only person to request more repeats from Philip Glass. Still, he said seriously, “his music needs to breathe. And as I got to know him over the year, I felt closer to that.”
Sunday’s concert will include music Haimovitz has played and recorded over the last decade, including works by Ned Rorem, David Sanford, and Osvaldo Golijov. It will begin, as many of Haimovitz’s solo performances do, with one of the six Bach suites. These works lie deep in the soul of every cellist, but for Haimovitz they are especially meaningful. His recordings of the Bach suites were the first on his own record label, Oxingale, and his performances of them in coffeehouses and clubs, more than a decade ago, signaled both Haimovitz’s emergence as his own artist and a pioneering step in getting classical music out of traditional concert halls.
Somewhat surprisingly, though, Haimovitz said of his first Bach recordings, “I’m at a point where I don’t recognize what I did 10 or 12 years ago.” In part, that’s an aspect of the natural evolution of a musician’s relationship with his repertoire. But he’s also been influenced by the early-music movement, with its preference for faster and more consistent tempos. “You can’t really turn back once you have that kind of experience with the pieces.” He hopes to re-record the suites in the next year or so.
As for the move to alternative venues, which he did so much to spur on, Haimovitz now seems as happy in a traditional concert hall as in a bar or club. In 2009 he served as an adviser to a Montreal venue called ex-Centris, a former cinema which reopened as a genre-spanning music club. Unfortunately, he said, it closed after only a few months, largely because of “the partnership of two investors who couldn’t see eye to eye on it.” (It has now reopened as a movie theater.)
Still, he’s cheered by the fact that even in traditional venues, “there’s less fear of presenting new music — it’s a lot better than it was 10 years ago. So in a way, I think the work in the alternative spaces has affected what’s being done in the establishment spaces.
“For me it was never about the space,” he said. “It was about the music I’m making and what I’m trying to do in terms of communicating with and building an audience. And that can happen anywhere.”
David Weininger can be reached at globeclassicalnotes