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Composers explore Bach’s cello suites

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Musicians have wrestled with Bach’s six cello suites since the composer wrote them 300 years ago.

Cellist Matt Haimovitz is bridging that timeline by asking six composers to explore these classic pieces in overtures.

Haimovitz will bring the results to three Santa Fe locations this weekend,, including the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum, Santa Fe Brewing Co. and the Scottish Rite Center.

It all started when the Montreal-based cellist began playing the suites using the gut strings and original tunings of the 18th century.

“Everything created a kind of resonance,” he said. “I wanted to bring these pieces into the present and into the future.”

He began contacting composers he knew (Philip Glass) as well as composers he didn’t know (jazz composer David Sanford). Most were excited by the prospect but intimidated by creating works designed to stand next to those of one of the greatest composers of all time.

“My wife turned me down,” Haimovitz said with a laugh. The cellist is married to the composer Luna Pearl Woolf, who was then working on the opera “Better Gods” about Queen Lili’uokalani of Hawaii for the Washington National Opera Company.

But Woolf changed her mind.

“She was struck by Bach’s sixth cello suite and the chanting in Hawaii,” Haimovitz said.

The cellist messaged American jazz pianist Vijay Iyer, who responded immediately. Glass, a friend, was similarly excited.

Bach incorporated sounds from France, Spain and Italy – “whatever he could get his hands on,” Haimovitz said.

“My theory was if Bach could have gotten his hands on Caribbean salsa or Serbian chants or Hawaiian chants, he would have,” he said.

Sanford opened his overture with a bass line echoing the music of the legendary jazz composer Charles Mingus, Haimovitz said.

“Everyone was thrilled and loved the idea of making that connection,” Haimovitz said, “but it was definitely a humbling experience. Everyone thought their music had to stand up to Bach. I hoped it would be a kind of time travel through different worlds.”

Haimovitz made his 1984 debut at 13 as a soloist with Zubin Mehta and the Israel Philharmonic. At 17, he made his first recording with James Levine and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. He made his Carnegie Hall debut substituting for his teacher, the legendary Leonard Rose, alongside Isaac Stern, Shlomo Mintz, Pinchas Zukerman and Mstislav Rostropovich. He teaches cello at McGill University’s Schulich School of Music in Montreal.