Mixing musical genres: Concert pianist and cellist to engage Penn State Altoona students

Classical music – with a twist – is coming to Altoona.

Concert pianist and host of National Public Radio’s “From the Top” program Christopher O’Riley and Grammy-nominated cellist Matt Haimovitz will perform as part of the Center for the Performing Arts Classical Music Project at Penn State Altoona on Wednesday.

Timothy Melbinger, lecturer in music at Penn State Altoona, said this is the second year the project -?which is made possible through a grant from The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation – has come down from the main campus to Altoona.

The object is to get more student involvement going with classical music through concerts, events and lectures, Melbinger said.

It seems it’s working.

Melbinger said when the Brentano String Quartet visited last year, there was standing-room-only crowds.

This year’s program has three parts with an afternoon and evening show, and a performance at the Port Sky Cafe as Haimovitz will attempt to attract and engage students through playing popular songs on his cello, Melbinger said.

“I thought it was a different approach to the music,” Melbinger said of the duo’s overall sound. “With impassioned music making and with arrangements of the pop songs, it should appeal to the students. The contemporary music [is played] on classical instruments, which could draw people to classical music done on classical instruments. If performers are seriously impassioned about what they’re doing, it should re-wire some people’s ears.”

Discussion and question-and-answer sessions will take place at the afternoon and evening performances.

In a recent phone interview, O’Riley said he and Haimovitz began playing music together more than a year ago. They both come from a classical background, but they “strayed” into other genres, he said.

“I think there’s great music to be had in every genre,” O’Riley said.

The collaboration was a “blast,” and there was “trust, give-and-take and a generosity” that emerged between them, Haimovitz said of he and O’Riley in a separate phone interview. Playing together, they lost track of time.

Before they collaborated, the musicians knew of one another.

They had followed parallel paths, Haimovitz said. Haimovitz came to embrace various music genres later than O’Riley. His musical landscape did not expand until college, he said.

The duo released “Shuffle.Play.Listen.” in 2011.

Haimovitz said it is a two-CD set with mostly classical music on one disc, and arrangements of songs from such acts as Radiohead, Blond Redhead and Arcade Fire on the other.

The idea takes the listener “between two worlds,” Haimovitz said of “Shuffle.Play.Listen.”

Haimovitz said there is no set program when they take the stage. Rather, they let the program evolve from performance to performance.

They “push” their instruments, and where they can go will surprise the audience, Haimovitz said.

“I definitely take the cello where it has not been before,” he said, laughing. “The cello and piano are different in what they can do. [It is a] combination that, in a way, has been forced by history.

“What we do sort of opens up what is in essence an unnatural pairing.”

That pairing produces a flow between genres from the past and today.

“Most pop pieces are recognizable from the classical music. There are commonalities that make changing from one genre to another not jarring. There’s actually a lot of commonality,” O’Riley said. “Classical music is music that’s stood the test of time.”

Mirror Staff Writer Amanda Gabeletto is at 949-7030.