Matt Haimovitz and “Voice”
Portland Ovations “If Music Be the Food of Love…”
Hannaford Hall, USM Portland
Feb. 5, 2016
by Christopher Hyde
Cellist Matt Haimovitz and the vocal trio, “Voice,” have a devoted following. There was a surprisingly large audience at Hannaford Hall on Friday night, in spite of 10 inches of snow and icy roads. Most people stayed after the concert to meet the artists.
Haimovitz, one of today’s grand masters of the cello, is also known for his eccentric choices of repertoire and for performing in unusual venues. I saw him at the Odd Fellows Hall in Buckfield and at Jonathan’s in Ogunquit, where he played his own amazing version of Jimi Hendrix’s “Star Spangled Banner.”
Now he is collaborating with “Voice,” founded in 2006 by Emily Burn, Victoria Couper and Clemmie Franks. The problem, as Hamovitz explained, was that there was no repertoire for cello and vocal trio.
That difficulty was solved by holding a contest for the best settings of a Shakespearean sonnet (numbers 8, 30, or 60), three of which were played on Friday: “Like as the Waves” by Filipe Sousa, “Sonnet 60” (setting the same text) by Božo Banović, and another “Like as the waves,” by Diana Rosenblum, all of which made good use of the similarities in timbre between voice and instrument. Sometimes one could barely tell which was which.
There is a problem with musical settings of poems (and vocal music in general) which has nothing to do with the ability of the singers. It is rare that the whole (of music and verse) is more than the sum of the parts.
The poem, like a Shakespearean sonnet, is magical on its own, and music, no matter how well composed, obscures the words. (I would rather hear an opera in the original, partly because I can’t understand the libretto in English either.)
“Voice” opened the concert with “Caritas habundat” (Love abounds), by Hildegard of Bingen (12th C), in a setting for cello and trio that was quite effective, with the cello being the basso continuo of a quartet. There were two other works by the famous abbess, but a little goes a long way, especially when we have no idea what her music sounded like.
My favorite among the collaborations was the fourth movement of the Philip Glass String Quartet No. 3, (“Mishima”). Haimovitz played the cello part, with “Voice” taking viola and first and second violins. While such a transcription would be too difficult for a Beethoven quartet (for example) the highly repetitive nature of Glass’ composition makes it ideal for singing.
Haimovitz solo was as remarkable as ever, as was his pairing of disparate composers. A Prelude by Philip Glass was followed by the Bach Prelude from the Cello Suite, No. 1 in G Major. After intermission a piece entitled “Es War” (2015), by David Sanford was followed by the Bach Prelude from the Cello Suite V in C minor. The first work, which begins with a long pizzicato section, is the epitome of violence, to which the Bach, as inventive as it is, was a welcome antidote.
“Voice” was at its best in old English ballads, such as Morley’s “It Was a Lover and his Lass,” in which the words and the music originated together. They were also fine in modern, humorous songs by Ayanna Witter-Johnson to texts by Jean “Binta” Breeze: “on cricket, sex and housework,” which begins “I have never loved ironing,” followed by a succession of double-entendres,” and the romantic “just in case.”
The concert concluded with a brilliant “Who by Fire,” a Leonard Cohen song arranged by Luna Pearl Woolf. Cohen is one of the few musician-poets as eclectic and inventive as Haimovitz.
Appropriate to Valentine’s Day (when Roman teenagers could legally play house for a day) was the encore, a traditional wedding processional from southern France. Then out into the ice and snow: “Ice and snow, take it slow.” Maybe someone should set that road sign to music. I can hear R. Murray Schafer’s swirling adagio now.
Christopher Hyde is a writer and musician who lives in Pownal, He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.