Lynn Harrell is known throughout the world as a cellist, chamber musician, recitalist, conductor, teacher, and recording artist. Mr. Harrell is the recipient of numerous prestigious awards, including the Piatigorsky Award, the Ford Foundation Concert Artists' Award, and the first Avery Fisher Prize (jointly with Murray Perahia).

TJ: As a teenager you lost both your parents. This kind of trauma would emotionally cripple most people for years. How did you manage to overcome this tragedy and become one of the world's most acclaimed cellists?

LH: It took me a long time to come to terms with it. It's an experience that I wouldn't wish on anyone. But I have found the resilience of the human spirit to be extraordinary. Look at what is going on in Bosnia today. There will undoubtedly be some painter, dancer, or musician in 20 years whose story will be much more horrific than my own. The fact that, in the late 1950's, my father died of cancer, that my mother died in a car accident two years later, that the estate was sold, and that I was able to buy a Montagnana cello, will seem like a bed of roses when compared with what others have had to endure.

I was very lucky that, although I was the youngest of three children, I was more equipped than some, both emotionally and practically, so that I didn't flounder in my life. I was already embarking on my career as a professional musician.

TJ: Where did you live before you got your first job?

LH: My mother died when I was 17. After that, I moved around to different family friends' houses with my one suitcase and cello until I was 18, when I joined the Cleveland Orchestra. In part, I got that job because George Szell knew my father through their collaboration at the Metropolitan Opera. He hired me out of respect for my father, whom he felt was a great musician. I played for Szell when I was in Cleveland visiting my godfather, Robert Shaw, the great choral conductor, but I didn't play any orchestral music because there wasn't an opening. I played for him because both Robert Shaw and Leonard Rose thought it would be a good idea, and because Leonard Rose, my teacher, thought that it would be an important step towards a solo career. A couple of months later an opening became available in the orchestra. At that point, I decided that I would pattern my career after Leonard Rose's career, who also started in an orchestra. Besides, I thought living in one place and having a steady paycheck was great! This was before I found out that I was going to inherit enough money to buy a Montagnana cello.

TJ: Do you feel that this tragedy in your life has added depth to your musicianship?

LH: Oh, yes. I think now, due to much introspection and with the help of self-help and psychology books, that I have learned to recognize the pain that we all experience and that none can escape. Some people have more than others, but we all have it. Part of the artistic process is to channel these feelings of pain and sadness through music to the listener. In my teen years, when I awoke to music, I didn't really share it with my parents because I was very inhibited, since they were professionals. When they died and I couldn't share it with them, there was this need to really give to others, a need I now try to fulfill by giving to the audience.

TJ: You mentioned Leonard Rose. What was he like as a teacher?

LH: He was marvelous, both as a cellist and as a teacher! His playing was glorious, particularly tonally. There hasn't ever been a cellist that played better than Leonard Rose; he was right up there with Rostropovich and Starker. He could get a fat, deep, singing tone out of the cello.

His understanding of the mechanics of fabulous cello playing was profound too. As a teacher, he was able to pick up the cello and show his students how to play something, which was very helpful. He was also very supportive and warm as a person, which was very important. He was sensitive to the different personalities of each student, so he was able to let each flower as unique individuals. For example, both Yo-Yo Ma and I studied with him, and we play quite differently, which is a testament to Leonard Rose's great teaching. We both have a very solid foundation technically, but we sound quite differently, which is partly because in our youth we had someone who was so open, free, and supportive.

TJ: Did he have any technical or musical principles that he focused on, besides the usual paintbrush technique with the bow?

LH: Yes, that paintbrush business was very characteristic of him. He also had a system of scales like Galamian, with certain rhythms and bowings that he insisted upon, at least in the beginning of your studies with him. After awhile, he would stop checking to see if you were practicing them, since it was assumed that you did. Many years later, after reading about and watching videos of Jascha Heifetz, I figured that it would be a good idea for me to get back into practicing scales, since Heifetz believed so strongly in them. Leonard Rose also had his students play etudes, double stops, sixths, thirds, octaves, and many other technical things, which he was able to demonstrate beautifully. You should have heard him play Popper No. 9 or No. 13; it was staggering! He was a very inspiring teacher.

TJ: What about any general musical principles?

LH: Leonard Rose was one of those cellists who had been trained and rounded out as a musician through orchestral music, and by working with great conductors such as Toscanini, Mitropoulos, and Walter. He would often compare a piece to a passage in an orchestral work. For example, he would say that the sound quality of a certain passage should have the sumptuous quality of Mahler rather than the overt Romanticism of Tchaikovsky. He could make connections like that. It was paramount that you knew the orchestral repertoire when studying with him.

TJ: After Leonard Rose, you went on to study with Orlando Cole at the Curtis Institute. What was he like as a teacher?

LH: Orlando Cole is a great teacher in the way he brings out the individuality in each student, while also giving each the security to express the passion of the music, which I think is very important. He knew it could be difficult to overcome the inhibition of the teen years, so he let you know that it was all right to let your hair really hang out. In fact, he helped us understand that the music really demands it and that the composers are crying out for it. Orlando Cole's wife was an amateur singer and I remember going to his house for dinner, where his wife would be playing and singing Schubert songs at the piano. I felt like I was with a family that revolved totally around an icon of great music, both logistically and emotionally. They paid homage to the great composers for what they have given us, and stressed that we need to give back to the composers by playing their music with heartfelt expression. This experience made a deep and lifelong impression on me.

Looking back, I remember the inspiration of Leonard Rose, who had risen out of orchestral life to become a world-class soloist. With Leonard Rose, there was this sense that you could conquer the world through your playing. But for Orlando Cole, music wasn't about winning at all. It was just about the experience of making music and how fulfilling it is, whether you've got ten thousand listeners or two. This meant a great deal to me at that stage in my life because there was just an honesty and straightforwardness to it.

TJ: And yet at the same time, Orlando Cole also made you wade through Sevcik etudes.

LH: Yes. Sevcik helped me discover the variety of techniques that is required for the right arm. Orlando Cole had a completely different kind of bow arm than Leonard Rose, or my first teacher, Lev Aronson, who was a student of Piatigorsky. There was such a variety of ideas on where the wrist is supposed to be, the height of the elbow, and where the tension and power comes from. This was very useful, since I was given a great deal of choices on how to play later in life. I now play with three or four different ways of holding the bow, depending on the music. I was lucky because I decided to learn each of the different systems on their own and can now apply each, or variations of each, when I feel the music needs it.

TJ: Could you describe some of these ways of holding the bow?

LH: Sure. One hold is when the fingers are very shallow over the bow, so that they don't come down nearly as far as the hair, as they usually do with the "standard" bow hold. The thumb touches the stick and maybe touches the top of the crook of the frog. The hand is in a relatively high position so that you can twist the stick between your thumb and fingers. The little finger may be on top of the stick, like a violinist, and the wrist dangles naturally. This bow hold is for a more delicate sound. The disadvantage of this grip is that there's very little ability to stop the bow from rotating back and forth, because you're gripping something that's round and it can just move under the force of playing, particularly on the lower strings.

For a more powerful bow hold, I lower the third and fourth fingers. The third finger is lowered so that it can grab underneath the frog, and the fourth finger is almost underneath the frog too. The thumb slides down and presses directly into the crook of the frog, but at an angle, so that it doesn't slide through. My wrist is flatter when I use this bow hold. With this hold, it's almost impossible to twist the bow at all, it's almost like holding the bow like a baseball bat, which gives one a very strong grip.

TJ: When you play as a soloist, do you find that you have to play fortissimo most of the time just to be heard?

LH: I used to play that way, but now I play a great deal softer in certain passages. I used to worry, if I didn't play loud all the time, that I wouldn't be heard. I thought an orchestra could only play so softly. But I eventually discovered, when the orchestra could not hear me at all when I was really playing very softly, that they would eventually adjust and play even softer than I thought possible. Since then, my dynamic variety, from the very softest to the very loud, is much wider than it used to be.

TJ: Has this changed because you now conceive of a concerto more as a chamber work than as a solo piece?

LH: This idea has always been of great importance to me because I think any piece has a variety of goals, that sometimes a chamber music piece is orchestral in intent, and sometimes a solo piece is chamber music in intent. But for me it's part of my inward need to try to make as much textural and color difference as I can, which is normal and natural for vocalists. They have so many different vowels, all the consonants , and different languages too. They sometimes make their voices gravely, and they can sort of speak something rather than sing it, which is called "parlando" in Italian. This is an aspect of communication that is very difficult to do on a string instrument without sounding like you're just making a bunch of noise rather than playing the notes. But I think it's my inner need to try to find as much variety in the music as there is in life that drove me to go to the softer end where I cultivate these timbres.

TJ: You were the principal cellist (at age 20) of the Cleveland Orchestra under George Szell. What was he like as a conductor?

LH: He was so knowledgeable of the music that, in a number of pieces, not only did it seem like he didn't need the score, it seemed like he could write out the score, and that he knew all the parts as though he had played each of the instruments. He knew a great deal about ensemble playing, about the history and the intention of the composers, and he was totally dedicated and totally selfless about his pursuit for that musical ideal.

The trouble was that he was more intellectually driven than emotionally, which was the opposite of Toscanini, who was more emotionally driven and less intellectually driven. Szell knew that his demeanor, his manner, and his personality with his thick glasses, could be very off-putting and intimidating to orchestral players, particularly the young, inexperienced ones. He did realize, at least intellectually, that sometimes he made the orchestra tight, tense, and uncomfortable in their way of playing, which was how they sounded sometimes. I think this was a great sadness to him because he was smart enough to realize that the problem emanated from himself. But sometimes he projected this insecurity and took it out on the orchestral players by being very nasty, like Reiner or Toscanini. There were other times where he could be very beatific and grandfatherly and warm. Unfortunately, because he was sort of hell-bent on creating the greatest orchestra that had ever existed, he would sometimes forget that music is meant to be the most remarkable, expressive, and dynamic form of communication.

His was a career of trying to push the Cleveland Orchestra further along than the NBC Orchestra had been with Toscanini. Occasionally he would remember that music is the most powerful and magnetic form of performing art, and he would just let the orchestra play, let them sing. Those performances are etched in my memory as being the most memorable of my life, because, in spite of his shortcomings, he was still a great conductor. Technically he was not clear in certain things; there have a lot better conductors before and since. But he drilled and rehearsed the orchestra to such an extent that they were able to play irrespective of whether he was clear in a particular place. He would yell, "You have to play together, don't follow me! "

TJ: In other words, "What's wrong with YOU people?!"

LH: Yes, exactly. So in that way, it was very much like a string quartet or a chamber music. He just did things over and over again, until we got it right.

TJ: Szell was a pupil of Richard Strauss. Did you ever play "Don Quixote" with him?

LH: I studied it with him, but we never performed it together.

TJ: Are there things he told you about the piece that others don't understand today?

LH: Yes, but they're subtle. There are things that were given to me through George Szell and Piatigorsky, who knew Strauss too. Szell once told me what Strauss said to Piatigorsky when they were rehearsing, "You play my Don Quixote beautifully, but you have to understand that I don't want it to be played. I want it to be spoken and sung." Szell insisted that I read the novel before we even started working on it. He would point out some of Strauss's ideas of orchestration to give the piece a kind of timbre of sunshine that exists in Spain, which doesn't quite exist in northern Germany. Don Quixote is a very German piece of course, but there's an aspect of its coloration and instrumentation that has a tinge of a Latin warmth, which Szell pointed out to me orchestration-wise. When working with me he would try to get more of that kind of coloration in the sound rather than it being Germanic, which is to say less clipped and a little bit less precise in coloration.

TJ: Since Szell seems to have been a very intellectual musician, there must have been certain principles that he constantly worked with.

LH: Yes, and he was right. I didn't realize at the time that he was so right, but I've come to realize it more and more: rhythm, rhythm, rhythm. And this doesn't just mean playing like a metronome. It means a characteristic feeling of motion should be understood and portrayed clearly, whether it's absolutely steady, slightly accelerating, getting slightly more intense and fast, or diminishing and calming down. These aspects were nuances that were happening virtually constantly because his sense of timing was extremely precise. I remember when I realized that I had finally developed that same sense of rhythm when I played the Schumann Concerto with him. There was one performance that I thought was much slower, and so I was really angry with him because I felt that he was dragging it terribly. To my surprise, one performance was 21 minutes, 5 seconds, another performance was 21 minutes, 1 second, and the third was 21 minutes, 6 seconds. So you see, the timing and the pacing was the most important thing to him, more than tone color. And then of course there was ensemble and intonation, but I think that timing was the most important.

TJ: I read in one interview with you that you were bored with orchestral playing at a certain point, and that Szell had a little talk with you. What did he say?

LH: I had been in his orchestra only a few months when I started feeling, like a lot of young people do, that I was losing my individuality, that I was unable to express myself as an individual, and that I wasn't getting any solo accolades, which is just an aspect of the ego. He asked me if I liked the second theme of the first movement of the Brahms Second Symphony? I said yes. Then he asked me if I liked the beginning of the third movement of Brahms Third. I said yes. He said, "Well, you know, you can't play those by yourself. They're conceived for a large number of people." We had a discussion about how to practice orchestral material so that I didn't feel frustrated that I couldn't sound like a full section. And then he said that these are the great treasures of the literature, that I need to be able to feel that I'm an integral and important part of the overall piece, and that it won't happen unless I feel that way. So I came out just beaming. I thought, how wonderful, I can play in orchestra and really enjoy it!

TJ: How did he suggest you practice orchestral music?

LH: Exaggerate certain aspects that get washed out when you have a lot of people playing, like maximizing dynamic differences and exaggerating vibrato coloration.

TJ: This is very difficult to do and requires a lot of work and concentration!

LH: It takes real work and a development of a different kind of technique.

TJ: Don't you think there is some truth to the fact that your personality is less important in an orchestra? For instance, I've heard that in auditions, Szell tended to pick the people who were the more subdued musicians.

LH: He did that for the section players. But for the openings up front, the first two stands of the string sections, and any wind players, he wanted real individual and dynamic personalities. In fact, he had more guts than any of the others who were hiring at the time. Ormandy once asked me, "Where are you sitting in the Cleveland Orchestra? Last stand?" I said, very proudly, "No. I'm on the third stand. " Ormandy was quite amazed, because he knew that I had absolutely no experience. But what Szell was intent on doing was helping someone with no experience, though with a lot of personality, to find the discipline and the control to play with the others, while still being able to express and play satisfyingly like an individual, which is very difficult.

His ideal violin section would have been all soloists. He would laugh, with a sort of raucous laugh, since it would be impossible at rehearsals to get them to play as a group. But if you could... then he would just drift off and not finish the sentence.

He would talk to me about being a responsible citizen in the musical community of one's colleagues in a large ensemble. He said that it was important to do your part, like being a really active committee member. You're not president of the board, you're just in a committee, but the committee's really important. And it was very gratifying being a member of that kind of an orchestra.

TJ: What an amazing time! You have played and recorded piano trios with Perlman and Ashkenazy. You once described an interesting contrast between the two musicians. You described Perlman's musicianship as relying heavily on instinct, whereas Ashkenazy seems to be more analytical. Which approach do you gravitate towards?

LH: My approach has changed throughout my life. As a youth, I was all instinct. But then I met George Szell and James Levine, who were more analytical musicians. These musicians, as well as many others, really knew what they were doing, and I found that my instincts weren't enough. I soon discovered that knowledge was a key to maintaining a high level, even though there were days when I didn't feel like playing. Your mind can carry you a long ways if you use it. They would say to me, "So sometimes you don't feel like playing, what are you going to do? Are you going to give a bad performance just because you don't feel like it?" You've got to know what you're doing so, if you have a fever and you're really feeling awful, that you can still give very close to your best performance. The only way to do this is to really know what you're doing, and to study and to learn.

So there was a long period where I just didn't trust my instincts anymore. But after awhile, I grew tired of this approach and felt like it was time to let go and to trust my instincts. I was willing to let my instincts take me where they wanted me to go.

TJ: In other words, for example, you knew how the Dvorak was "supposed" to go, but then it was time to dig deeper into the music and search deeper within yourself.

LH: Yes. I suppose I've come to a stage in my life and career, where I do certain things that somebody 25 years my junior would perceive as being an indulgence, which is how I, as a youth, used to view Fournier's or Casals' playing at times. I probably do this in part because I feel that I've paid my dues and that I am entitled to some "liberties. " But this also comes from a great deal of introspection, thought, and analysis over the years, and so I see things differently than I did years ago.

TJ: You once said that you listen to lots of recordings, and, if a phrase seems particularly beautiful, you will try to figure out exactly what it is about the performance that makes it so beautiful. You will listen to the phrase over and over again, and will use a metronome to determine the exact tempo. Does this imply that your performances are like a quilt, in one phrase you're Casals, the next you're Feuermann, and the next you're du Pres?

LH: Early in my career, I used to sound like a quilt of performances, which is something that I worked for years to overcome. I borrowed one marvelous expressive device after the next from the various recordings, which resulted in some performances that were not as cohesive as I would have liked.

But I don't feel badly about this. Karel Husa, a Czech composer who wrote a marvelous cello concerto for me, told me that Dvorak learned to compose by taking down the harmonic structure of great pieces and filling in his own notes. This is like learning to become a great painter by the painting by numbers. It looks terrible at first, but you can develop a sense of the picture if you use your imagination, and that's one of the things that I did with music. I actually did this more with pieces that weren't for cello, but then I worked a great deal on how to translate these ideas to the cello. I would listen to a singer change tone color, or an oboist play with a beautiful legato, or a horn play with a thickness of tone.

TJ: I saw an interview of you in a documentary on the Casals Festival in Puerto Rico? You said something very interesting. You said that Casals was more interested in the larger concept of a piece and not so much interested in the finer details. What did you mean by that?

LH: I think that the great musicians have spent many years on the details of musical performance, on presentation, on playing in tune, and on playing accurately, But when it comes right down to it, the meaning of the music, of the overall panorama of what you're trying to, is the predominant stimulus to all the other little details that one decides upon.

TJ: If you read "Casals and The Art of Interpretation" by David Blum, he talks about how Casals would take every measure, every phrase, and would analyze the music very rigorously. Perhaps it would be better to say that he did both. He clearly had the big picture, which comes from experience, but perhaps he reached that level through a painstakingly detailed process when he was younger.

LH: I've done exactly the same thing, as you can see from our earlier conversation about how I used to listen to recordings. There are thousands of details even within a ten minute piece. The challenge is to have an awareness of the many details, without losing sight of the larger concept of the piece. Otherwise, the performance can sound "notey," disjointed, and mannered.

TJ: You once said, since the Grutzmacher edition of the Boccherini Concerto is such a crowd pleaser, that it must be a good piece.

LH: Yes, I think it's a good piece. It's neither Boccherini nor Classical Period music, nor is it fully a Romantic piece. But it has sort of a Victorian's view of what Classical music was, which was corrupt compared to what we know now. But this doesn't mean that it doesn't have any value at all.

TJ: You are therefore choosing to look at the piece on its own merits, without looking at the piece through historian's eyes.

LH: That's right. I'm not playing it thinking that it is Boccherini at all, because I'd just break out laughing. Nor am I thinking that it is late nineteenth century music either, because it's not. It stands on its own, and is in its own way quite successful.

TJ: Do you have any general principles when you play Bach?

LH: Bach is just so complex and difficult! I think it should be very tightly controlled rhythmically, so that there's a give and take of the pulse of the music. But the speed and how it unfolds in tempo and rhythm is absolutely paramount. Cleanliness is very important too, that it's clean and beautifully attenuated, so that it's really pure and beautiful cello playing. That's why I love Starker's Bach, because it is just so pristine and beautifully controlled.

TJ: I noticed in the Sarabandes in your recording of the Bach Suites, which was done 15 years ago, that you tend to think of them in eighth notes instead of quarter notes.

LH: I was concerned when I made that record that I was going to rush, which is what I do when I get nervous. I wanted to make sure, two years later, that I wasn't going to think of my performance of the Sarabandes as too fast. I play them a little bit faster now.

TJ: I also noticed that you tend to use a lot of separate bows whereas other cellists, like Fournier, seem to slur notes a lot more. How did you come to this choice?

LH: Well, partly because of the discoveries of the original instrumental people, that the slur in musical notation didn't necessarily mean that it should be under one bow, and that detache bowing was much more prevalent. I also found that the difference between playing detache and playing legato was very, very subtle on a gamba. With the tight set-up of a modern instrument, the difference is quite large. But I think that the bowings given out in Bach's unaccompanied music for violin, show that we cellists should play with a great deal more separate bows than the Casals tradition, which was more Romanticized and more legato.

TJ: Please rank the following items in order of importance to you as a performer: musicality, personality, technique, "taste," faithfulness to the composer, Authenticity, and Audience Pleasure.

LH: I think musicality would be the most important for me. With that comes faithfulness to the composer, because if you're musically sensitive, then you can sense what the composer's getting at, and therefore you find that the best way is his way, which is not only to play all the notes that he wrote, but how he conceived the notes and their execution. This means that authenticity comes into it too. It's very easy to get distracted and to think that musicality and the expression of your own personality, and therefore audience pleasure, is the way to success. This would merely be a career in performing, which is not an artistically uncompromising way to go. We are here to be of service to the music that has moved us and changed our lives. To be able to do this adequately requires a tremendous amount of discipline; therefore technique is very high on the list. But all of this should gel into an experience that moves, touches, perhaps makes the audience angry, and, above all, makes the audience think and feel. If all of these things -- taste, technique, authenticity, faithfulness to the composer, musicality, and personality - are working and they still don't add up to sweeping the listener off his feet, out of his world, then essentially you have failed.

I used to think that the audience's reaction was totally unimportant. I used to think that as long as you did what the composer had instructed, that it didn't matter if the audience was there or not. I don't think that way anymore; the audience is a key element of every performance. I spent many years where I just didn't care about what the audience thought. But having been in the audience myself, whether for an opera, a concert, or the theater, I have since found that I want to be changed by the experience. I want to have a mind-blowing and soul-expanding experience, which is what I am constantly searching for. It's like a hunger, and if I can get it, I love it, and if I don't, I'm sorry, but I'll keep looking for it. When I perform, I strive to give this same experience to my audience.

TJ: I've seen you perform several times. I've seen you play the Elgar, Haydn C Major, and the Shostakovich concerti. When you play, sometimes you seem more like an opera singer than a cellist, in that you seem to get into character for each piece. For instance, in the Haydn C, you were smiling at and laughing with the audience throughout the performance. Your cadenza quoted several musical references, such as the Beethoven Violin Concerto. By contrast, during the Shostakovich, you had a very powerful and grave manner. You grimaced and gasped, and you whipped your bow off the string and waved it in the air like a sword. Are you aware that you do this, or are you so engrossed in the music that you assume the character of the piece?

LH: It's just the way I get into a piece and feel it. Naturally, some of it is deliberate. For instance, when I was writing my cadenza for my recording of the Haydn concerto, I played on the fact that Haydn loved to play practical jokes on his musicians, and would write these jokes into his quartets and symphonies. It was all right to have a tongue in cheek attitude about music and to have a good time. If it is all right for Haydn, then it's all right for me.

TJ: But you've got to admit that you put on a good visual show for the audience. Are you saying that you don't do it consciously?

LH: No. It really isn't a conscious effort on my part.

TJ: Do you feel like you must get into character for each piece? Do you imagine yourself as the town jester when you're playing the Haydn?

LH: Each piece moves me in such a way that I act it out. It's sort of like method acting; once I get into that state, I don't have to act. If I don't get into this state, then my performance is just a bunch of empty gestures, or as Jonathan Miller describes, "contentless energy. " So when I'm playing the Shostakovich, I have visions of aspects of Soviet life that I can only hint at. I try to imagine what it must have been like to feel the fear of hearing people knocking sternly on one's neighbor's door, wondering the next morning if the neighbors are going to be there or not. But living with this as a daily reality for 25 years is something that is hard to truly comprehend without having actually lived through it. Sometimes, like in the final section of the concerto, I suddenly see barbed wire and goose-steps and cobbled streets and I go for that vision when I play. But I don't have a formula for it. Sometimes I feel it more strongly than at other times. Now I have enough maturity and confidence in my career and in my musicianship to let myself go and let my inner self speak, even if it upsets the control and the technique of playing. I know that sometimes I hit the cello a little stronger than maybe I should, but that's how the music moves me.


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