Review: Haimovitz and O’Riley play pop tunes and classics at George Mason

March 25, 2012

The cellist Matt Haimovitz has for some time been staking out his claim as a classical-music innovator, getting attention for doing things like playing Bach in nightclubs. The pianist Christopher O’Riley, meanwhile, has been building a reputation as the man who performs classical-piano arrangements of Radiohead and other bands. Last fall, the two of them got together and issued a two-CD set, “Shuffle.Play.Listen,” blending genres and styles in a way that echoes the actual listening experience of most iPod-owning music lovers. And they brought this show — excerpts of the CD, that is — to George Mason University on Saturday night.

The problem wasn’t that it remade the classical music experience. The problem was that it didn’t go far enough.

Don’t get me wrong; I love a good traditional classical concert. But I also welcome new approaches, and this didn’t really seem to be one.

Yes, it included two excerpts of Bernard Herrmann’s score to “Vertigo,” arranged by O’Riley, and arrangements of Radiohead’s “Pyramid Song” and “Misery is a Butterfly” by the group Blonde Redhead. And yes, it’s refreshingly different to hear this music juxtaposed with works by Janacek (“Pohatka”), Anton Webern (the gorgeous three Op. 11 pieces for cello and piano, bracketed by two pieces he wrote as a teenager), and Stravinsky (two movements of the “Suite Italienne,” the arrangement of “Pulcinella” he wrote for cellist Gregor Piatigorsky). You can’t fault the program: It offered a tremendous range of music, with a lot to like and a great mixture of the familiar and the new (whether “familiar,” to you, is Stravinsky or Arcade Fire’s “In the Backseat”).

But the presentation seemed slightly timid; the musicians seemed more self-conscious about breaking new ground than they needed to be. Talking from the stage is a good thing, particularly when you’re offering such a broad spectrum of music that many in the audience might not know. So why not say a bit more about what you, the performer, like about the pieces? And why not be more spontaneous? The evening felt scripted; the comments constrained. And though there wasn’t a printed program — selections were announced from the stage — it felt as if the performers had decided well in advance what they were going to play.

Another hitch to innovation was the fact that the more conventional pieces — “Variations on a Slovak Theme” by Martinu, or the Janacek — sounded like home turf, certainly for Haimovitz. They’re written well for these instruments, and there’s a tradition of performing them. In the newer repertory, though Haimovitz plunged into special effects with a will, his tone too often sounded thin or even scratchy. He threatened to make a lot of noise in a solo arrangement of the Beatles’ “Helter Skelter” by the composer Luna Pearl Woolf (who happens to be his wife) but the reality was a little tamer than the promise — and perhaps closer to the title than the player intended. O’Riley’s solo turn was the luminous and understated “Für Elina,” by Arvo Pärt.

The evening hit its stride in the program’s second half (or second “set,” in the performers’ attempt at contemporary terminology). It included some gems — notably what was casually billed as the world premiere of a stunning little piece by Philip Glass, called “The Orchard,” a deceptively simple-sounding song for the cello buoyed by positively impressionistic clouds of piano accompaniment. (Haimovitz is playing in the world premiere of Glass’s second cello concerto with the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra next weekend.)

And the crossover aspect of the program caught fire with the final piece, an arrangement of “The Dance of Maya” by the eclectic jazz-rock-world-music fusion pioneer John McLaughlin.

There was a lot to like Saturday night. Indeed, I wish more chamber concerts tried to follow the form of pop concerts — if your goal is to win listeners, it can’t hurt to give performers human faces and a rapport with the audience. I just wish this concert had been more confident in following what is, after all, an established template in other genres. And I wish some of the music had been played a little bit better.

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