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J.S. Bach's Music is as Contemporary as Anything Written Today

Credit: Steph Mackinnon
Cellist Matt Haimovitz

What kind of music would speak to Bach today? Cellist Matt Haimovitz—who has been performing works by Bach in concert halls and clubs for the last three decades—asked composers to respond to the preludes from Bach’s cello suites. WRTI’s Susan Lewis reports.
Three hundred years ago, Bach was creating his own musical language. “He was synthesizing vernaculars from around him” says cellist Matt Haimovitz. “I wanted to expand that cultural palate and work with composers dealing with the same kinds of compositional process issues.”

Bach is the book I carry with me everywhere. It's a bible, of sorts. - Matt Haimovitz


On his new CD, Overtures to Bach, Haimovitz pairs a contemporary commission with a prelude from each of Bach’s six cello suites. The very first piece, ahead of the opening prelude, is a work by Philip Glass.
“It’s a piece that puts you in a state of mind, in a sense of peace, but also romance,” says Haimovitz.  “very Bach-like in his approach, very contrapuntal and singing—you hear 2 to 3 voices in conversation.”

Credit Nadine Hennelly
Composer Luna Pearl Woolf

The commissioned “overtures” challenged Haimovitz to embrace new ideas and techniques. An example?  Adapting the cello to the pace and the pulse of Run by jazz pianist Vijay Iyer.

“I started to make little changes of articulation. It was really like approaching my cello as a drummer would his instrument... having the Bach follow this contemporary piece just brings out the different elements.

The pairing creates a sort of musical dialogue between each new piece and its Bachian ancestor. Other composers represented on the CD are Du Yun, Roberto Sierra, David Sanford, and Luna Pearl Woolf.


Cellist Matt Haimovitz talks with WRTI's Susan Lewis about the discoveries he made when he paired contemporary composers with Bach on his new CD, Overtures to Bach.

Susan writes and produces stories about music and the arts. She’s host and producer of WRTI’s TIME IN online interview series, and contributes weekly intermission interviews for The Philadelphia Orchestra in Concert series. She’s also been a regular host of WRTI’s Live from the Performance Studio sessions.