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This article was last updated on
19 November, 2001

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A glimpse of Lynn Harrell…

The Inkpot caught the celebrated cellist just after his rehearsal with the SSO, just before his lunch, and in the middle of a much needed break. He more than obliged us of course, as you will subsequently read…

This interview was kindly made possible by the Singapore Symphonia Co. Ltd

SSO 9 Nov 2001 | SSO 10 Nov 2001

by David Chew

You studied under Leonard Rose. What was that like?
Yes, he was quite wonderful and I idolised his cello playing when I was a boy. When I was about ten, eleven years old, I loved Piatigorsky. Leonard Rose's playing, the sound and the vibrato, it was such a beautiful sonority. Although I was studying at that time with a cellist who was studying with Piatigorsky, whom for him was a god. But he was always trying to get me to listen to Gorsky's recordings and I was always listening a bit more to Leonard's Rose recordings because I loved Rose's playing.

What was the difference in their playing?
Piatigorsky, for me, had tremendous imagination and a unique musical personality. But Leonard Rose, just instrumentality, played the cello with such a wonderful sense of depth and breadth of sound quality. It was very much more like a singer than Piatigorsky.

When you were younger in the Cleveland orchestra, I read that you badly wanted to play solo parts. What was that all about?
When I first started playing in an orchestra, I took it up because my parents had died and I was orphaned and I needed to make some money. Since I was about twelve or thirteen, I imagined myself being a soloist. But what I joined then as the wonderful orchestra and started playing all these wonderful music that I hadn't heard 'cos I didn't go to orchestra concerts when I was a youngster.

Even though both your parents were both musicians?
Yes, they'd let me play during the summer times when we were at the Aspen Music Festival. I went fishing and played baseball. Very rarely went to a concert. (Laughs here). So I discovered all these Mozart, Haydn, Beethoven, Brahms, Schubert, Mahler, Stravinsky when I joined the orchestra, and it was just like being let into a candy store, just so wonderful. So I got side-tracked with the idea of wanting to be a soloist and I just loved playing orchestra music.

Now that you have a career as a soloist, do you have any longing to play in an orchestra again?
No. I did for many years. Once I became a soloist I often joined in as a guest soloist to play with the orchestra a piece that I'd learnt and played a great deal as a member of an orchestra. But I realised that I have done that in my life. I've accomplished that and I don't have the desire to go back and do it again. I like the idea of conducting and being a 'strings consultant' for orchestra-style string playing and maybe conducting some. But not to be a member of a cello section anymore, per se.

Left: The younger Lynn Harrell.

Do you lean towards a more intellectual/analytical approach of playing or an approach based more on instinct and feeling?
I think for many many years it was very very much instinctive and emotional. And then when I joined the orchestra with George Szell, and I met James Levine, I realised the intellectual and the thought process of interpretation. I was very much into that kind of approach and that lasted certainly a very long time and its only in the last twenty years that I've gotten more and more back to playing with just my instinct and feelings. But my instincts and feelings are quite changed from my study than when I was younger.

So one can say that it is after going back to technique and having a stronger foundation that you go back to your instinct and that would help?
Yes, oh yes. It frightened me once when George Szell said to me, "I don't understand why you…" - I was criticising Szell in his approach to a Beethoven piece - why he had that kind of sound and that choice of tempo, and he said "well if you were born in Vienna you would understand". And of course I wasn't born in Vienna so I suddenly realised here I am, born in the boom years, and growing up in the 1950s in America, and Mozart and Schubert and Beethoven lived in Vienna in the early 19th century and its not such an easy thing to just decide their music is the same thing exactly how you feel now. So I did a great deal of research and study and I did learn that certain things that instinctively I felt were just not correct. And I had to give them up.

You have, on a number of occasions compared playing the cello to a singer and his or her techniques. Could you elaborate on that?
Certainly. It's my favourite subject. I think when people hear string playing and they like it, they're moved by it, it's because the string player has a sense of making the string instrument sound and speak and sing like a singer. So there are aspects of singing and speaking that are things we should try to copy and emulate.

...I sense those things and the connections of a good singer to playing a string instrument in a vocal way.

The variety of consonants in language, and the variety of colour of vowels - from the difference in vowels in French, German, Italian, they're just so many colours. The beginning of a breath should sound different than the end of a breath because if it sounds the same it's not a living breathing, alive animal. Sometimes that's extended so a string player is bound to just hold a note and its kind of an abstraction. And vibrato is a natural function of singing, so sometimes you vibrate on a string instrument very fast like a soprano, or sometimes very slowly like a bass singer. Of course when you vibrate very slowly and you're playing in the high register, it just sounds like a very fat over-the-top Wagnerian soprano who should've stopped singing twenty years ago. Which is of course funny. We all think of that as funny. So I can make people laugh by demonstrating (and he does that here, singing… "ooohhh") kind of vibrato. But it's appropriate in certain very low notes, because that's what happens with the bass singer down in the very deep register, where it vibrate much more slowly.

So there's breath, there's colour, there's articulation, and there's rhythm. The notation of music is divided mathematically by twos and threes. But there's a lot in between a two and a three. There's a lot in between that. And of course, there is in language and speech and poetry, there's sense that we can alter, with an educated guess, a classical rhythmic function much like in the La Mer (which was being rehearsed next door, and he demonstrates with notes from more vibrant to languid styles rhythm).

Right: The older Lynn Harrell.

It's both following the score exactly with that rhythm. It's the interpretation, now which one would be more correct. An educated guess would be the French one, because the French is a softer more sensual language than German. So that's just how you would use things that you could study and learn from music that has text so music that has text a composer writes because of the text meaning something.

Like the other piece you would be playing, the Schelomo, the "Hebrew Rhapsody".
Yes, the Schelomo. King Solomon is a very dynamic leader, he is a young King, he's got a great deal of vigour and reading Ecclesiastes in the old testament you get a feeling for the kind of sensuality and emotional aesthetic strength there is in King Solomon. And to pit it against the entire Israelites, the rest of the orchestra is very much like all of the Israelites, and King Solomon is the dominating over that sometimes not necessarily with muscular force but with philosophical and intellectual power.

Would I be straying from the truth if I suggested that this connection you use can be attributed to the fact that your father was an operatic baritone himself?
Yes, I think when I've told cello students of mine to study opera, and to study Lieder, even when they do, they often don't get as much inspiration and as many ideas as to how to change their cello technique from the singing as much as I did, and I think that's partly cause of the genes of my father as a great singer and I heard him when I was very very little growing up. So I sense those things and the connections of a good singer to playing a string instrument in a vocal way.

Both your parents passed away by the time you were 17. Could you comment on pain and the artistic process? As surely this must have affected your playing, your musical life?
Yes, I think I have a great deal of pain from that experience. I'm not saying that I'm special in any way. I think everyone is dealt things, like in a card game, that are unfortunate and difficult. But I think for me, because I didn't have anyone to look after me, when I first moved to Cleveland to get a job, and to earn some money, was the effect of it was that I took longer to open and free up my musical and aesthetic personality. I was feeling things very intensely inside, but they didn't come out through my playing and it was in very younger years, I played boringly. It was boring. It wasn't full of all the feeling that I had inside. It just wasn't able to come out, and that I think was a protection device because I had been left alone and I didn't know where I was going to go and who I'd become. It was difficult for a number of years.

In 1999, you presented a recital program entitled "Songs My Father Taught Me". Could you tell us more about that?
Yes, it was a concert that I wanted to do for many years. It was through my friendship with Jimmy Levine who introduced me to my father's artistry. He came over to my house once and said, haven't you heard your father's recording of this or that? And I said no. So he put them on for me and I was just amazed how wonderful my father's singing was. And we never had any musical discussion or he never forced me to come to a concert, or if I did come to a concert, tell me about the piece he was about to sing, or share any of his music with me. So the fact that I learnt that he was such a great artist after he died, made it a very powerful source of study and it certainly changed my life from that point on.

I came back to making this program with my father in mind and I talked about my upbringing, I played a number of his recordings in the concert, and certain excerpts I would actually play his recording and then I'd play the exact same song with a cello because I wanted to show people more definitely what it is about being a singer that you copy. So if you'd have heard that program, you'd hear my father singing a song of Schumann then I'd play the same song in the exact same key. And you could see how I would make it sound as much like a cello singing as my father was singing with a human voice. And that I wanted to do, not only for the audience to understand where I come from as an artist and a musician, but also because I learned so much from my father.

What was it like recording the Beethoven String Trios with two great musicians and being the first classical artists to perform at the Grammy's?
The Beethovan Trios was just a hoot! Because Itzhak Perlman and Pinkas Zukerman are great fun and they're always having a great great time, joking around a lot. And at the Grammy's, it was great. I met so many great musicians backstage. It was very exciting but it's a very wild kind of an atmosphere. You have so little time to actually play and rehearse, and there's that little bit of talking before, then lights, the television sort of Hollywood sort of atmosphere, makes it very difficult to concentrate and to play well.

Left: Lynn Harrell performs in Singapore, Nov 9 and Nov 10, 2001.

There is a tendency for celebrated musicians such as yourself to perform crowd-pleasers in concerts. What would you to say if I suggested that perhaps big name musicians such as yourself could help attract attention to lesser known works by performing them instead of the usual crowd-pleasing fare?
Yes, I think it is very very important. I remember reading a Stravinsky book where he says that it isn't the people who dedicate themselves playing and singing contemporary music, it's the people who get known as romantic concert virtuosos who, when they play a contemporary piece and difficult intellectual music, the audiences are much more liable to accept it and listen to it. And I love to stretch my musical background and personality with new pieces.

How much does the audience affect your playing?
I never decide to play something differently because there are people sitting there - consciously. But I do think I am susceptible to feeling the collective consciousness and concentration and focus of an audience. And it feeds me. I'm not sure how this happens but I recognise that it does happen. It doesn't happen as much in a rehearsal with an orchestra because it's just the orchestra musicians who are listening and they're not listening quite the same way as an audience member because they are busy playing themselves. Therefore I think I play better in concerts than I do in recording sessions or rehearsals.

Due to time constraints, DAVID CHEW failed to get Lynn Harrell to share his $4-million dollar experience of losing his cello in a NY cab and more…

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SSO 9 Nov 2001 | SSO 10 Nov 2001

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