Live review: Christopher O'Riley & Matt Haimovitz, Davidson College (9/24/2015)

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Christopher O'Riley & Matt Haimovitz
Duke Family Performance Hall, Davidson College
September 24, 2015

Pianist Christopher Riley stood up from his piano and welcomed the audience with a friendly warning. The evening’s program would be left to “the random actions of our hands.” He was joking but he was also telling the truth. Two master musicians, O’Riley and cellist Matt Haimovitz, had claimed the stage to present Shuffle, Play, Listen, a selection that shattered the boundaries between classical, popular and avant-garde music. The only category that seemed to matter to the duo was “good music.” 

Who better to pick a playlist? O’Riley, one of the leading pianists of his generation and host of the popular NPR music program, From the Top, was teamed with Haimovitz, a player who redefined classical music by bringing it to the people – playing Bach in a series of intimate settings, including a groundbreaking 2002 gig at famed punk rock club CBGB’s.

Their opening piece, where Bernard Hermann’s score to Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo segued into Radiohead’s “Pyramid Song,” was a foretaste of the musical adventure ahead. Introducing Shostakovich’s “Sonata for Cello and Piano in D Minor” with the Monty Python quote, “And now for something completely different,” Haimovitz launched into mellow wine-like tones from his cello, followed by a dizzying precipitous descent. O’Riley’s low creeping chords kept pace as the sonata shifted through four movements, spanning an impish march, a whirling country waltz, a honeyed lament and a frantic slapstick chase where cello took the part of a drunken husband and piano signified his impatient wife.

And that was just the first half of the evening.

After a brief intermission, O’Riley and Haimovitz continued their explorations. A bustling and tremulous take on Arcade Fire’s “Empty Room” gave way to a rendition of Beethoven’s 12 Variations on Mozart’s theme from “The Magic Flute” that was both stately Shifting from lush romanticism to stark minimalism, the pianist and cellist tackled Philip Glass’s somber, subtly shifting “The Orchard”, written specifically for the duo by the composer. The eerie nocturne had barely settled before O’Riley and Haimovitz leaped into a fiery Latin tango before circling back to the romantic and troubled melodies of Hermann’s Vertigo.

O’Riley’s discordant keys counterpointed a shimmering, shuddering interlude on cello. Haimovitz joked that his intense, physical performance constituted “fingerboard O’Riley’s arrangement of “The Dance of Maya” by legendary jazz-fusion guitarist John McLaughlin capped the eclectic evening. Sawing and wailing over O’Riley’s turbulent piano, Haimovitz’s cello ascended like distant heat waves before the duo launched into a rollicking blues raga. Blues, Indian modalities and a rock guitar solo transposed to cello may not be expected fare at a classical concert, but these were no ordinary players. Before the selection, Haimovitz joked with endearing modesty: “The coolest thing about me is that I know John McLaughlin.”

Not true. Unconcerned with categories and unencumbered by genre, O’Riley and Haimovitz may be the coolest thing to hit classical music in ages.

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