ICS EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEW
CONVERSATION WITH OFRA HARNOY
by TIM JANOF
Born in Israel, Ofra Harnoy studied with her father, Vladimir Orloff, and William
Pleeth. After her family moved to Canada, her debut as soloist with orchestra
at age 10 was followed immediately by solo engagements with the Toronto
and Montreal Symphony Orchestras. Winning the 1982 International Concert
Artists Guild award (the youngest ever) led to her concerto and recital
debuts in Carnegie Hall, which won both public and critical acclaim; in
1983 she was named Young Musician of the Year by "Musical America"
magazine. She has appeared as soloist with major orchestras on five continents,
and has been featured in hundreds of televised solo concerts in Canada,
Japan, Australia, England, and throughout Europe. Twice she has played before
H.R.H. Prince Charles by invitation, and several times before members of
Japan's Imperial Family. At the invitation of Canadian Prime Minister, Jean
Chrètien, she performed for President Clinton in 1995. She has won
Canada's JUNO award as Best Classical Soloist five times. In 1988 she received
the Grand Prix du Disque. Ofra Harnoy was recently named by "Maclean's"
(Canada's national weekly magazine) as one of the 12 Canadians in all fields
who bring the most credit to their country. In 1995, she was appointed to
the Order of Canada.
excerpt of Ofra Harnoy
TJ: Who were your idols when you were growing up?
OH: When I was a little girl, they were Rubinstein for the piano, Jascha
Heifetz and David Oistrakh for the violin, and Rostropovich and Jacqueline
du Prè for the cello. As I got older, I realized that there were
many great musicians with interpretations that I admired for different reasons.
Growing up with my father's record collection, which had tens of thousands
of recordings, I could listen to thirty interpretations of the same piece.
I discovered that in a particular piece I'd like one musician's rubato in
certain passages, and another musician's second movement, and so on, so
I stopped having individual idols.
TJ: You studied the cello with your father. I assume he is a cellist.
OH: No, he actually plays the violin. He was my first teacher and only taught
me for about a year and a half. He showed me generally what to do and then
I took it from there.
TJ: Did he teach you to put the "pinky" finger on top of the bow,
as well as other violinistic techniques?
OH: My technical training was not terribly rigorous at that point, so I
kind of found my own technique. Some teachers attempted to change my technique
over the years, while others chose to leave it alone, since I had successfully
defied the "rules," which they thought was wonderful. I think
I've ended up with a technique somewhere between the "traditional"
and my childhood technique.
TJ: What are those "bad" things you still do?
OH: A major thing is that I don't have the "proper" form in thumb
position. Most cellists are taught to go into thumb position and maintain
a fixed hand-position for each group of notes, often referred to as shifting
between "blocks" of notes. I don't necessarily do this, since
I allow my fingers and thumb to have more independence, which I think most
other soloists do as well, because one can't always follow the prescribed
patterns in certain passages and still play well.
TJ: Is there a wide gap between your thumb and first finger at times?
OH: Yes, or it may even be up in the air, depending on what the music calls
for. I always have an idea of what I want the music to sound like, and I
don't want technical "rules" to get in the way. For instance,
if I want a dark sound I feel free to go to the D string in thumb position.
Or, if I don't want technical difficulties to interfere with the musical
line, I will go from the A string to the D string, and then fly back to
the A string. The music always dictates the technique rather than the other
TJ: What technical advantage do you gain by allowing your thumb to be more
independent in thumb position?
OH: It allows a freer vibrato and a freer range of movement, which is especially
helpful when I'm playing fiendishly difficult pieces like the Offenbach
concerto, which I recently recorded. Of course there are times when I need
the thumb for maximum control and security. But I don't have time to think
about shifting between blocks when I'm flying all over the fingerboard.
Pieces like the Offenbach Concerto require you to transcend traditional
TJ: Are there any other things that the traditional cellist would find questionable?
OH: I think every soloist has his or her own completely radical technique.
I remember participating in a master classes with Janos Starker at age 15
or 16. After I finished playing, he started out by saying, "I don't
like cellists like you." I was about to cry when he then said, "I've
spent years writing books about the technique of cello playing and then
you come and demonstrate that you don't need any of it," which is an
indirect compliment, I think.
The wonderful thing about my education was that I was allowed a lot of freedom
to explore on my own. I wasn't handed down the traditional technical prejudices
that many inherit from their teachers. For example, when people begin studying
an instrument, they are restricted psychologically by being made to start
in first position only, after which they graduate to second position, and
then to third position, and so on.
TJ: So they're fooled by the concept that higher is harder.
OH: Exactly. It should be the other way around actually, because gravity
pulls you down the cello. I was very lucky because I was never restricted
in this way.
TJ: How did you escape this traditional route?
OH: It was just the way my father wanted to teach me. He thought I should
start everywhere on the cello and didn't want to limit me in any way. In
my first year, I was playing in all of the positions, including thumb position,
though I didn't know they had names at the time.
TJ: Who was your first formal cello teacher?
OH: When we moved to Canada, I had a couple of teachers from the Toronto
Symphony. I then studied with Vladimir Orloff at the University of Toronto
when I was 11 or 12 years old.
When I was 14, I attended the Aldeburgh Music Festival in England and met
wonderful people like Jacqueline du Prè and her former teacher, William
Pleeth. I ended up getting a special scholarship to study with William Pleeth
on and off for the next three years.
TJ: Did he try to change your technique?
OH: He didn't try to change me at all. He tried to open up my mind to lots
of ideas. He would make me play a passage 20 or 30 different ways before
he would allow me to choose an approach. He strengthened my individuality
and always wanted to know why I would choose a certain way. His teaching
style was wonderful because he made me fearless when it came to finding
the colors and textures that I wanted without the restriction of technique.
I wouldn't choose a fingering just because it was more comfortable, I would
choose a fingering because it did what I wanted musically.
TJ: Would you say that the bulk of his teaching was just trying to help
you discover your own ideas, or did he have specific ideas that he wanted
to convey, principles on playing Bach, etc.?
OH: He had wonderful ideas. With Bach, he emphasized the fact that there
are many different voices and that you need to bring out the different voices
as if they are speaking to each other, while retaining their individuality.
He is definitely the greatest teacher that I've ever come across. I've had
lessons with some wonderful musicians who didn't necessarily have as much
of the gift for teaching that he has.
TJ: You were in a master class with Pierre Fournier. When did this occur?
OH: That was also at Aldeburgh, though a different year. I was there for
three summers in a row.
TJ: Do you remember anything specific that Fournier tried to teach you or
other students in the master class?
OH: I have wonderful memories of listening to him as a cellist, but my master
class experience was not great. He gave me his fingerings and bowings and
then told me how to play like him. He actually asked me to study with him,
which I decided against. After having studied with someone like William
Pleeth, I didn't want someone who just told me to do this and do that. It
may work for some people, but I didn't think it would work for me.
Jacqueline du Prè was also wonderful. I was 14 when I first met her.
I really wanted to impress her, since she'd been my idol from the time I
was a little girl. Before I played for her I listened to her version of
the Dvorak Cello Concerto and tried to imitate it, just to be on her good
side. There was a passage that she played very slowly, so I really took
my time with it when I played for her, trying to do the same things she
did. Ironically, one of the comments she made was, "It is very tempting
to take liberties like these, but I don't think you should."
TJ: Was this after she was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis?
OH: Yes. She was already in a wheelchair. It was very difficult to watch.
The night before, my parents took me to see her narrate "Peter and
the Wolf" in London. They thought that I should see her physical condition
prior to the master class, since I was very, very sensitive. It was very
difficult to see her like that and I cried that night. This helped me somewhat
get used to the idea of her being in the wheelchair. But as soon as I began
studying with her in the master class, I was able to forget about her condition
because she was so vital, often singing, and quite humorous.
TJ: You also studied a short time with Rostropovich. Doesn't he have a similar
approach to Pleeth in terms of allowing you freedom?
OH: I was ten years old when I first met him. He offered to give me a quick
lesson in his hotel room, saying he only had five minutes, but he ended
up spending two hours with me. He is the one who gave me the quote that
I used in my biography as a little girl, saying I have "everything
that makes a great cellist."
He piled works on me by Davidov and Romberg, as well as other study concerti.
He told me that I should be spending two hours a day on technique, which
I did faithfully. I also remember studying the Brahms E Minor Sonata with
him, which is when he taught me something that had an impact on me for years;
I must always know the piano and orchestral parts so that I know to back
off when the pianist or orchestra has the melody, blending in and out as
needed. This has helped me tremendously throughout my career, and I am eternally
TJ: Do you like to perform?
OH: The only time I really feel that I'm making music is when I'm performing.
When I play for myself, it's not the same thing as playing for an audience.
I love the feeling when it's going the way I want, because the audience
is part of it. I love feeling the vibrations of the audience, when they
hold their breath through the silences, which is when I really feel a bond.
It's an incredible experience.
TJ: When you're up on stage, what are you thinking? Are you the type of
musician who tries to paint a picture or are you thinking something like
"I want a crescendo here," or "I don't want to miss this
OH: I try never to think about an upcoming difficulty like a big shift.
If I worry about missing a shift, then I am probably going to miss it. This
is something that I've often told students in master classes; never focus
on the upcoming shift because you'll miss it. The minute you obsess about
a technical hurdle, it's over, at least for me.
I can't say I succeed 100 percent of the time, because I've given so many
hundreds of concerts and there are times when things don't work. I try to
lose myself completely in the music and paint a picture, though it may be
something abstract. I'm not thinking about the notes on the page, and I'm
not thinking about what I had for lunch. I try to become completely absorbed
in the line of the music so that it becomes textures or colors or sometimes
Sometimes I have a whole story-line in mind. For instance, in the Franck
Sonata, the piece becomes a story about an old woman who is at her husband's
grave going through the emotions of remembering the past with him, screaming
out in anger at his death. There have been a few times when I've had tears
running down my face, because I was so involved in the music and became
part of it.
TJ: Is this your own personal imagery?
OH: Yes. It just came into my head. That's what the music reminds me of
for some reason. Imagery has come to me with certain pieces since I was
a little girl. I remember listening to Mahler symphonies and imagining hunters
in the woods with deer running away.
It's incredible how music can create these kinds of images. When I talk
to people who I'm trying to convert to classical music, I make them listen
to the music and come up with their own imagery. I find that this helps
them overcome the fact that the music doesn't have words, which gives the
music a personal meaning for each listener.
TJ: Are there any other cello pieces that you associate with certain imagery?
OH: It's usually very vague and changes a lot. The Franck Sonata is unusual
because I've had the same image several times. But maybe I'll imagine something
in the middle of a Vivaldi concerto, where I imagine birds in the trees
in the springtime. It's not always an actual scene, since I may be experiencing
abstract colors, textures, and ideas. Once in awhile a cougher in the third
row jolts me out of my concentration and I begin thinking about how much
I wish he or she would just leave, which may result in some unpleasant imagery.
Sometimes when I'm coming to a beautifully quiet passage where I want the
audience to hold their breath, I'll hear "Aaaachooo!" which makes
me feel less than charitable towards the offending sneezer. Another one
that gets to me is the person with the crinkly cough drop wrapper, who always
seems to sit right up front.
TJ: I definitely empathize with your feelings on this issue. You've probably
played the Dvorak Concerto what seems like a million times by now.
OH: About a million, yes.
TJ: Do you still like the piece?
OH: I think it's impossible not to, since it is such an incredible work.
It has everything -- the passion, the virtuosity, etc.
TJ: Are there some days when it's difficult to summon the same old emotions
for the piece, when you say to yourself, "Here we go again?"
OH: I never feel the "here we go again." There are days when my
mood or my physical condition are not ideal for performing. But I find that
any time I play a work repeatedly, I try to play it differently, to see
it in a new light, and to recreate it somehow, with the composer's intentions
in mind, of course.
TJ: Many of your CD's indicate that your producer and musical supervisor
is Jacob Harnoy. Is he your father?
OH: Yes. He produced my albums until two or three years ago.
TJ: Does he have some other role at RCA Victor?
OH: Not anymore. He now produces albums for other people on his own label.
TJ: Did he give you input on your playing?
OH: I wouldn't say that he had input on my playing, though he certainly
had a strong influence in my early career. He used to be my manager, so
he had a lot of say as to what and where I played. Then I took charge of
my own career a few years ago and went with different management.
TJ: Whose idea was it to have sultry pictures of yourself on the CD jackets?
OH: I don't see them as sultry, I think of the photography as just beautiful.
The pictures definitely focus on me, which I don't mind because it seems
to help sell records.
TJ: Your CD's received a lot of attention in the beginning because of the
pictures, which was unusual in the classical music business at the time.
OH: I don't see why there was such a big issue about my covers. I think
there's a double standard between pop and classical music; Celine Dion is
depicted in nightgowns and nobody says a word. I certainly haven't gone
that far. I see my covers as just beautiful pictures of myself. The pictures
are ultimately irrelevant, though, since I don't think people buy one CD
after another for the cover. They could go buy a magazine like "Cosmopolitan"
and get lots of pretty pictures.
TJ: You recorded a CD of Beatles songs. You must be a big Beatles fan.
OH: I've always loved their music. Actually, my Beatles album was not recorded
recently, except for one piece, "Free as a Bird." The rest of
the album is a compilation of songs I recorded when I was 16 or 17. The
arrangements are beautiful, sounding somewhat like Schubert string quartets
with a cello solo. I was a little hesitant when the CD first came out, since
I know a lot of people concluded that I must not be a serious classical
musician. But now classical musicians are playing all kinds of music. People
like Yo-Yo Ma are playing jazz and are still considered to be serious classical
musicians. I think it's terrible to brand people as one type of musician.
Great classical musicians can cross over, but hopefully they will want to
TJ: Do you know how many concerts you play per year?
OH: It's difficult to say. I tour about six months of the year. I used to
tour about ten months of the year, but I cut it down because I found I wasn't
enjoying it as much.
TJ: Which part was not so enjoyable?
OH: Living out of a suitcase for ten months of the year is very exhausting
and unsettling. I also believe that what you experience in life is reflected
in your music, so I chose to take more time to enjoy the places I was visiting.
My last Far East tour was the first tour where I took the opportunity to
see the places where I was performing, instead of always rushing to the
next city. I've made this a high priority in my life. I may be taking away
a couple of months from my performing tour, but I'm enriching my life, which
in turn enriches my playing.
TJ: Do you enjoy performing the Bach Suites?
OH: I love playing the Bach Suites, but I find that they are one of the
most demanding pieces to play, not just technically, but also intellectually.
Bach was so beyond his time with harmonies and voices that it is very difficult
to separate them and make people hear them. I just played a concert of several
Bach Suites in England, and I don't remember being so exhausted. It takes
so much out of me, because the amount of concentration required is monumental.
TJ: Do you have time to teach?
OH: I conduct master classes primarily. I really enjoy them because I've
had some wonderful teachers, and I can sometimes eradicate handicaps in
students by saying a few of the key phrases that my teachers used to say
to me, which is very satisfying.
TJ: What are some common handicaps?
OH: I've had some embarrassing moments giving master classes because of
the common handicaps. I remember at one school when all of the students
of a particular professor had the same problem. The students weren't really
listening to themselves so they had no concept of phrasing. They played
with swells that were dictated by their bow, which destroyed the line of
the music. Their bow would dip down at the end of each down bow because
of some sort of weak-wristed motion. I really focused on this with each
student. At the end of the class, the teacher wanted to play for me. It
was really embarrassing because he had the same problem as his students.
TJ: What are some other common problems?
OH: The "fear of heights" is a major problem. With a lot of students,
the higher they go on the cello, the "mousier" they sound. I try
to help them free up by telling them not to think about how high they are
on the cello, or not to focus on an upcoming shift. I try to get them to
focus on the music instead. It's amazing what can happen when a few key
phrases are said. It's like opening a door to a whole new world.
TJ: What are some these key phrases?
OH: Focus on the line of the music instead of certain technical barriers
or upcoming shifts. Listen to yourself, which for some students may mean
listening to a tape of themselves, because they're hearing what's in their
head and not what's coming out. I help students who play in a monotone way
by talking about theatrics and the way they would speak in public, which
is a very powerful way to show them how to phrase.
TJ: What do you mean by "theatrics?"
OH: There are places where you need to pause for a breath, where you want
an exclamation point, where you're asking a question, and where you're happy
or sad. I help them deal with this in a theatrical way and then get them
to apply it to the music.
TJ: When you say "theatrics," do you mean something more than
just a clear delivery, or are you referring to some sort of acting, playing
to the crowd, etc.?
OH: I'm not referring to theatrical antics. I'm talking about the fact that
you need to exaggerate your articulation so that it is clear all the way
to the last row in a concert hall.
It's funny that you bring up theatrical antics. The first time I saw myself
on video I was shocked, because I'm a very shy person and I didn't realize
that the music was causing me to sway as much as I do. I tend to close my
eyes and forget about what I look like or what I'm doing. I think of my
swaying as very untheatrical, since it's a very sincere reaction to the
TJ: What does your typical practice routine consist of?
OH: I practice pretty much every day. I do a combination of bow work, working
on both up bow and down bow spiccato and staccato, as well as left hand
work. I have exercises that I've formulated from books and from people over
the years for shifting, for different muscles in the hands, for speed, and
for finger independence.
I usually start with slow scales just to take the crimps out. Sometimes
I do these with very slow whole-bow strokes to help with bow control and
for maintaining a smooth legato sound. For shifting, I have a little song,
which may have originated from Janos Starker, that is all shifts, both large
and small, in different positions in every key, so that I actually use the
entire cello from top to bottom. For finger independence, I play an exercise
very fast that goes 1-4-3-4, 1-4-2-4, and so on. I have a piece that combines
shifts with very fast up and down bow staccato and spiccato. It starts with
a very large shift and then I spiccato my way down. The piece is somewhat
like "Hora Staccato," a show piece often played by Jascha Heifetz.
TJ: When you are working up a piece, do you listen to lots of recordings?
OH: I usually try to find my own way first. When I do listen to recordings,
I listen to more than one interpretation so that I don't imitate anybody.
Listening to many interpretations helps you create your own style.
TJ: Do you have a general approach to studying a new piece?
OH: I first go through the piece to see what the technical hurdles are,
and then I start working from a technical viewpoint. I end up memorizing
the piece very quickly with this kind of work. I then start concentrating
more on the musical aspects of the piece, which will have already begun
during the technical work, since the lines, textures, and phrases reveal
themselves and become more than just notes on the page.
I usually try to read about what the composer was going through at the time
the piece was written, what the composer's feelings were, and if there is
anything about the piece that might be helpful. When I started my Vivaldi
project of trying to record all of his unknown concertos, I went to Venice
and went to the places where he had been, and also read everything I could
find about him.
TJ: Do you tend to gravitate towards older recordings of pieces?
OH: I like the older recordings because the great musicians of the past
tended to be more interested in music making than in technical perfection.
There is something wonderful about the fact that they sat down and just
played with their pure emotions of the moment, and didn't worry if there
was a scratch, or a little blurb, or a little moment that didn't quite work.
I recently listened to a live recording of Horowitz playing the Rachmaninoff
Third Piano Concerto, where the orchestra wasn't always perfectly together
with him and where he sometimes missed a note, and yet I was more moved
than I would be by a lot of modern recordings. There's a lot of pressure
today to be pinpoint perfect with everything and I think a lot of musicians
feel this pressure in the recording process, which blocks their expressive
TJ: How many takes do you generally do in your recording process?
OH: I try to do a complete performance two or three times, like a real performance,
and try to close my eyes and get involved the way I would in front of an
audience. I insist on this even if my producers aren't so thrilled, since
they want to work from A to B and then B to C, and so on. From these performances,
if there's something that hasn't been covered or if a passage is consistently
not together with the orchestra, then we'll work on that passage by itself.
But I really need the feeling of a performance when I record.
I know lot of musicians who are very comfortable working from A to B and
B to C, who can get the musicality, but I can't. I'm not what I like to
call a turn-on, turn-off musician. I must have some inspiration.
TJ: What are some of your latest recording projects?
OH: I recently recorded the Elgar Concerto with the London Philharmonic
and will be recording the Schumann Concerto for the rest of the CD. I'm
very excited about this because the Elgar is one of those pieces that just
wrings me dry; I always end up crying. It's such a wonderful piece.
TJ: The older I get, the more the Elgar moves me as well.
Do you tend to gravitate towards Romantic music?
OH: Not really. If you look at my discography, I have everything from Vivaldi
to contemporary to crossover. My main focus is to bring out unusual or unknown
works. My Offenbach and Lalo album was recently released, which I'm very,
very happy with. The Offenbach is kind of a world premiere; I think it was
recorded illegally once in Romania, but I don't think it is a very good
version, since it didn't sell me on the piece.
I like recording a familiar piece and then pairing it with an unfamiliar
work, like I did with the Boccherini Concerto and a world premiere of the
Viotti Cello Concerto, which I'm convinced he wrote for the violin, because
it's all in the violin register. And then there's my pet project, the complete
Vivaldi cello music collection, which I've almost completed, except for
one more volume. I really enjoy doing this because I think it's a fun way
to educate people about the repertoire that has been neglected for years.