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Musical chairs
[November 17, 2011]

Musical chairs

Nov 17, 2011 (Portland Press Herald - McClatchy-Tribune Information Services via COMTEX) -- Matt Haimovitz and Christopher O'Riley did everything wrong when they made their collaborative CD, "Shuffle.Play.Listen." Among their mistakes: --They made a two-CD set. Who takes the time to listen to two CDs these days? --They decided to mix both classical music and pop music on the record. How do they expect radio stations and retail outlets to deal with music that so dramatically crosses genres and confuses listeners? --They sequenced the songs with an arc in mind, so the CD set has a beginning, middle and end. It's a novel idea, but see above: Who has the time to pay attention to such details? In truth, Haimovitz and O'Riley did everything right.

"Shuffle.Play.Listen." feels like a landmark record, blurring the lines and what Haimovitz calls the "artificial and outmoded" boundaries that divide classical and popular music. Even if you don't know where to find it at the record store -- in the classical aisle or pop? -- it feels like a record for our times, reflecting our increasingly diverse and open-minded taste in music.

Released on Haimovitz's own Oxingale Records label, the CD has found a home on the radio and spawned a tour. The two men -- Haimovitz on cello and O'Riley on piano -- share the Merrill Auditorium stage on Friday in a concert sponsored by Portland Ovations.

The record includes songs by composers as varied and wide-ranging as Astor Piazzolla and The Cocteau Twins; Leos Janacek and Radiohead; and Bernard Herrmann and Arcade Fire.

In a phone conversation from his home in Montreal, Haimovitz laughed off the unconventional elements of "Shuffle.Play.Listen." Truth be told, he said, he and O'Riley likely would never have dared make the record if not for Steve Jobs and the invention of the iPod.

As much as the two musicians want us to listen from start to finish, the CD title reflects how we listen to music these days and how much our listening habits have changed.

"This is the 10th anniversary of the iPod, and with the passing of Steve Jobs it has brought some of his ideas to the fore," Haimovitz said. "Just think about how the iPod has changed how we experience music and how we listen to music. It is profound. We are celebrating that experience and the idea that you can take different genres and mix it up and not worry about where this goes in the music store.

"I will say that we have had challenges with the CD, even on the Amazon listing and getting the description right in terms of what you are buying. Fortunately, Chris has a strong following of fans, and I have a community of fans that are willing to go where we take them. But it is hard in terms of criticism to get someone who is a classical critic to talk about Radiohead or a pop critic who does not feel comfortable talking about Janacek. There are surprisingly few who will dive into that middle ground." On the positive side, radio support for the CD has been great, he said. Classical stations are playing the pop songs and the classical music is finding a home on some progressive and college radio stations, particularly those that specialize in jazz or Triple A.

In concert on Friday, Haimovitz and O'Riley will begin with a classical piece, then weave elements of many styles into their program. It will be equal parts piano and cello, and will wander freely from Stravinsky and Janacek to Radiohead and John McLaughlin.

Haimovitz promises it will not feel jarring or out of place in any way. "You will hear connections you never will have heard before," he said.

He also promises an informal program. "It has a rock 'n' roll spirit to it. When we play the longer classical pieces, we play one movement at a time. We're not playing a 30-minute piece and expecting you to applaud at the end. You can applaud whenever you want." So far, the best audience on the tour has been at South Bend, Ind., at the University of Notre Dame. "Half was the standard chamber music audience; half were college kids just really digging it," Haimovitz said. "It was just fantastic." Haimovitz is something of a musical pioneer. Classically trained, he has made it his mission to bring his music to as many people as possible by playing both formal recitals in concert halls and less formal gigs in coffeehouses, clubs and outdoor festivals.

He made his debut in 1984 at age 13, and his first recording came at age 17 with James Levine and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. He earned his classical bona fides at a young age, and now mentors young musicians through his role as music professor at McGill University in Montreal.

O'Riley has performed with many major orchestras, and is best known as host of the National Public Radio program "From the Top." As for the idea of asking people to listen all the way through, does Haimovitz really expect people not to hit the shuffle button? "We should add a warning on the label," he said. "It's called 'Shuffle.Play.Listen.', so we encourage you to do just that.

"But we should tell people to please, please, please listen once all the way through -- then hit shuffle." Staff Writer Bob Keyes can be contacted at 791-6457 or [email protected] Twitter: pphbkeyes ___ (c)2011 the Portland Press Herald (Portland, Maine) Visit the Portland Press Herald (Portland, Maine) at Distributed by MCT Information Services

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