Wildly eclectic classical cellist comes home to Bay Area

If you choose to be clever and shout “play some Skynard!” during a recital by classical cellist Matt Haimovitz, don’t be surprised if he takes you up on the offer.

The 35-year-old Israeli-born, Palo Alto-raised musician is a grown-up child prodigy who was trading licks with Itzhak Perlman before he was a bar mitzvah boy. But a conventional career wearing tails and playing to a similarly dressed audience never seemed to hold much appeal.

Recently, Haimovitz was the sole classical musician on a 10-city, 10-day tour with rock and jazz bands. (On a rock ‘n’ roll bus “you don’t sleep too much. There’s a lot of partying. And when you do sleep, you wake up in a new city. That’s cool.”)

“We went to the Troubador Club in Los Angeles, and that’s where Led Zeppelin started their careers. And I realized that the mode of the Turkish section in ‘Kashmir’ is similar to the Turkish section in Bartok’s Rhapsody No. 1. I wasn’t thinking about where it fits in the record store or the genre, but Led Zeppelin was essentially doing what Bartok was doing too,” said Haimovitz, who will play solo at the Osher Marin JCC on Thursday, April 20, and at Stanford three days later.

The result of his Led Zep epiphany? The debut track on his latest CD, “Goulash,” is a cello-driven version of “Kashmir,” followed by selections from Bach, Bartok and a turntable-spinning DJ.

And that’s just how Haimovitz rolls. Not too many other classical cellists would be comfortable ripping it up with a Jimi Hendrix-inspired version of the national anthem or, for that matter, playing at legendary punk club CBGB’s (“I like to say I had an older blue-haired crowd and also some punks with dyed-blue hair”).

Haimovitz, an instructor at Montreal’s McGill University, still has a large extended family in Israel, which he visits at least once a year. He’s never been exceptionally religious, but his deep commitment to Judaism shows up in unexpected ways.

“When I improvise, a lot of that Middle Eastern and Jewish musical history somehow makes its way [into the music], and it’s not even a conscience choice,” said Haimovitz, whose next project is a klezmer album.

While it might strike some as gimmicky for a leading classical cellist to play bars and punk clubs, that’s not how he sees it at all. The vestiges of classical performance — huge concert halls, religiously silent audiences, black ties — have nothing to do with music. He’s looking for a connection with his audience. He wants them to feel the music. He wants to chat in between numbers.

“The idea is that some places are simply more intimate. That allows performers to have a connection with the audience. It also keeps me on my toes not knowing who’s going to show up,” he said in a phone interview.

“Every night I change who I’m playing based on what the audience is that given evening.”

Matt Haimovitz will play at 7:30 p.m. Thursday, April 20 at the Osher Marin JCC, 200 N. San Pedro Road, San Rafael. Tickets: $18-$36 in advance, $18-$41 day of show. Information: (415) 444-8000.

He will give another performance at 2:30 p.m. Sunday, April 23 at Stanford’s Dinkelspiel Auditorium with the St. Lawrence String Quartet. Tickets: $20-$44. Information: 650-725-ARTS.

Joe Eskenazi

Joe Eskenazi is the managing editor at Mission Local. He is a former editor-at-large at San Francisco magazine, former columnist at SF Weekly and a former J. staff writer.