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Originally published Monday, January 18, 2010 at 7:00 PM

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A man and a cello walk into a bar: Matt Haimovitz plays the Tractor

An interview with cellist Matt Haimovitz, who plays his vintage instruments in nontraditional spaces. He appears at Seattle's Tractor Tavern on Jan. 20.

Special to The Seattle Times

Nightclub preview

Matt Haimovitz

8 p.m. Wednesday, Tractor Tavern, 5213 Ballard Ave. N.W., Seattle; $15 (206-789-3599 or www.tractortavern.com).

The Tractor Tavern's stage is no stranger to vintage instruments, but for Matt Haimovitz, the notion of a classic ax takes on a decidedly longer perspective.

The cello virtuoso, who has spent the past decade bringing Bach, Britten, Hindemith and Webern to rock clubs, nightspots, restaurants and dives, is celebrating the 300th anniversary of his instrument, which was built in 1710 by Venetian luthier Matteo Goffriller (who's to cellos what Stradivarius is to violins).

"Pablo Casals played on one and János Starker played on another," says Haimovitz, 39, who returns Wednesday to the Tractor Tavern for a solo recital. "I've had mine for 20 years now and I'm thinking about how I can celebrate this, putting together 300 years of cello music."

In effect, Haimovitz is going back to the beginning. He's developed a program based on his recent album "Figments" (Oxingale) that weaves Domenico Gabrielli's pioneering "Seven Ricercare" with contemporary works by American and Canadian composers such as Elliott Carter, Gilles Tremblay and Luna Pearl Woolf (Haimovitz's wife). Gabrielli wrote the ricercare in the late 17th century, laying the foundation for cello solo literature.

" 'Ricercare' means 'to search,' and the pieces have a very improvisational feel, just incredibly inventive," Haimovitz says. "I didn't know them well until I started looking at them a few years ago. Bach modeled the preludes to his suites on Gabrielli, and you can hear the sense of polyphony."

Born in Israel and raised in Palo Alto, Calif., and New York City, Haimovitz is the most celebrated cellist of his generation, a prodigy who toured with the Israeli Philharmonic at 16.

Now head of the string department at Montreal's McGill University, he grew frustrated in his late 20s with the classical audience's disinterest in new music.

He decided to break out of the gilded chamber-music ghetto and seek alternative performance spaces. He's taken advantage of the freedom provided by his solo tours to push himself in new directions, embracing contemporary composers like Elliott Carter, who wrote the title tracks for Haimovitz's "Figment" as part of an amazingly prolific ninth decade.

"He's still finding new sounds and new forms on the instrument," Haimovitz says. "At first the piece sounds very fragmented, but to me it's incredibly lyrical. The metric modulations make you feel nervous and anxious, but like Bach he sustains different threads throughout the piece."

Haimovitz lives on the East Coast but has been a presence in Seattle since performing with the Seattle Symphony for Benaroya Hall's inaugural season. He realized then that the city provided an ideal locale to launch his alternative-spaces project.

"The Tractor Tavern is one of the first places I went into with the Bach Cello Suites," Haimovitz says. "It's got a great vibe. Every time I develop a new solo project I got back there."

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