Bach fits in quite nicely at the Knitting Factory

Special to The Times

AT the core of cellist Matt Haimovitz's musical gift are the usual traits we expect of a virtuoso. In his hands, commanding technique combines with interpretive subtlety and an infectious passion. What sets him apart is a fresh and slightly radical attitude toward venues: He books himself into nightclubs rather than more pristine chamber music rooms.

On Tuesday, he performed in the large lobby area of the Knitting Factory in Hollywood. Listeners arranged themselves casually around the room or on plastic chairs close to the small stage, soaking up an experiment that worked artistic wonders.

Just because Haimovitz opts to cross the barrier separating high and "street" culture doesn't mean he's out to pander to a rock crowd or dumb down the repertoire. The only genuine "rock" element Tuesday was his signature "Anthem" -- a variation on Jimi Hendrix's "Star-Spangled Banner" in which the cellist nimbly mimics the electric guitar's feedback squeals, thick distortion and malleable timbre. A more surprising, rock-like moment came with the driving, linear energy of Gyorgy Ligeti's early Sonata for Violoncello Solo.

Mostly, as pop elements infiltrate the new music scene -- including Philip Glass' riff-like compositional machinery -- Haimovitz moves in the opposite direction, bringing high-minded, challenging music to clubland.

Tuesday's program leaned heavily on Bach, the result of an unfortunate "encounter with Homeland Security," he joked ruefully. He had intended to feature his cello quartet on pieces from his new album, "Ghoulash," with Bartok and Led Zeppelin in the mix. But problems with punctilious U.S. immigration authorities at the Canadian border prevented the arrival of two musicians and one instrument.

Still, the show went on, and movingly. Bach, it turns out, plays well in rooms where drinks flow and acoustics are iffy. A similar Southland sensation occurred recently when Jeffrey Kahane and Uri Caine brought the composer's "Goldberg" Variations to the Jazz Bakery. At the Knitting Factory, Haimovitz's performances of the second cello suite, in D minor, and the first, in G, came across with power and depth, surviving the inherently compromising discoloration of amplification.

Indeed, apart from the Ligeti, the Hendrix and Osvaldo Golijov's serpentine "Omaramor," Tuesday's show was an illuminating Bach-analia, culminating with encores of the Prelude and the slow and supple Allemande from the sixth suite.

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