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'Fresh Air' Remembers Grammy-Winning Cellist Lynn Harrell


This is FRESH AIR. I'm David Bianculli in for Terry Gross. We're going to listen to an interview with renowned cellist Lynn Harrell, who died last month at age 76. In Harrell's obituary in The New York Times, music critic Anthony Tommasini wrote, quote, "At 6 feet 4 inches tall and built like a linebacker with long arms and enormous hands, he seemed to envelop the cello when he played it, producing burnished and penetrating sound easily. Yet he was also a sensitive interpreter and subtle colorist," unquote.

Harrell grew up in a home where music was the first language. His father was Metropolitan Opera baritone Mack Harrell. His mother, Marjorie Fulton, was a successful violinist. Lynn Harrell joined the cello section of the Cleveland Orchestra when he was 18 and became principal cellist only two years later. Harrell went on to perform as a soloist with major orchestras around the world. He also was known as a beloved chamber musician and teacher. He won two Grammys for recordings with violinist Itzhak Perlman and pianist Vladimir Ashkenazy.

When Terry Gross interviewed Lynn Harrell in 1987, they started with the first movement of Shostakovich's first cello concerto.


TERRY GROSS: Is that as exhilarating to play as it is to listen to?

LYNN HARRELL: Oh, indeed it is. I think this kind of cold, clammy excitement and quivering intensity is the main thing that I'm feeling when I start to play that. It's almost impossible to control the explosive quality of the rhythm and the the vitality required enough to actually keep it in wraps enough for it to be a public performance. I find this piece so powerful that it's just - it's dwarfing to come in contact with it. And at the beginning, the music sounds perhaps a little bit gay, a little bit just bouncy. And - but the sudden crescendos, the timpani claps, the off-beat (vocalizing) just slowly scratches at you until it's just at the breaking point. It's very exciting.

GROSS: Are you thinking technique? Or are you just thinking what you're feeling when you're playing that?

HARRELL: I'm thinking technique occasionally when it gets very difficult. But mostly, I'm just reacting to the emotional picture of the music.

GROSS: You are, I think, one of the few soloist who actually started with an orchestral career. You started your career with the Cleveland Orchestra. Did you choose to start your career in an orchestra so that you'd learn ensemble playing better? You learn to be part of a larger group?

HARRELL: Yes. My teacher at that time, Leonard Rose a great American cellist, played in - years in orchestra. And he thought it was a wonderful musical training. Also, I had recently been orphaned. And I needed to have some financial security. And it was a - just came along at the right time in my musical development, as well.

GROSS: Your father died, I believe, when you were 16.


GROSS: And your mother died in an auto accident three years after that. Was the orchestra like a surrogate family for you.

HARRELL: Oh, yes, yes. I was so much younger than my other colleagues in the orchestra. And in a way, I was very lonely because I couldn't relate to them one on one because they were all as old as my parents. And their children were too young for me. And the schedule of the orchestra was very demanding. So although there was a university in Cleveland, I didn't really have time to to get involved with people my own age at the time so it was a difficult time but one that I wouldn't trade at all because that's the foundation of my musical and intellectual beginning.

GROSS: Your parents were both musicians. And as you had mentioned, they both died when you were a teenager. Most musicians, especially when they're young, I think, really immerse themselves so totally in music and shut out a lot of other parts of life. And I was learning if you went through that even more so because of the tragedies in your own family because you were probably forced to be more of a loner than you might have even chosen to be.

HARRELL: Yes, that's definitely true. I. I did do that. And it sometimes causes problems of adjustment for me today because that world of myself, the hotel room, the cello and maybe room service is - can be a very complete one when I'm on tour and away from my family and away from my friends. And it's only over a protracted, long period of time do I realize that I'm not really happy living that way anymore. But certainly, for a number of years, it was a kind of cocoon that was a protection against the harshness of the outside world. And in that way, music was like a savior to me. It really was a balm on hurt minds.

GROSS: Your father was a Metropolitan Opera baritone. Your mother was a violinist. When you decided to start playing music, was there pressure on you to be great and to really shine?

HARRELL: No, there wasn't. In fact, my parents were so afraid that they would innuendo that kind of pressure that they didn't take any kind of active interest or concern with my music at all. And in school orchestras and music organizations, they'd always say, well, of course, Lynn has the great advantage of his parents. But I didn't have one musical discussion with either one of them, never went to my father's or mother's concerts.

It was as though - the only thing that did rub off was that music as a way of life, as a just normal thing to do, was part of my family upbringing. Putting on a tie, practicing your instrument, warming up, putting a full dress on or a dress and going out on stage and performing in front of people was the way people lived as far as I was concerned. And it was very dramatic when I went to Florida on a vacation and I saw Chris Evert practicing tennis with her father, and I realized that her upbringing in tennis was the same sort of thing that I had in music - just a way of life, not just something you choose as a profession.

GROSS: Because your father recorded, you've been able to go back and hear him sing. As a mature adult, you've been able to use your developed ears now to listen to him. Does he sound different than you remember him sounding when you were young?

HARRELL: No, not at all. The - it's overpowering to me emotionally, particularly when I am using a recording of my father as a demonstration of something in a master class in my teaching. It's all I can do to control not just breaking up and weeping out of my misery of missing him and his art. On the other hand, I realize now more as - because I am a father that he wasn't such a good daddy in certain respects.

GROSS: (Laughter).

HARRELL: So it sort of balances out. It's very interesting.

BIANCULLI: We're listening to an interview from our archives with acclaimed cellist Lynn Harrell speaking with Terry Gross. Harrell died last month at the age of 76. We'll hear more of their conversation after a break. This is FRESH AIR.


BIANCULLI: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to the 1987 interview Terry Gross recorded with cellist Lynn Harrell, who died last month at age 76.


GROSS: I want to play an excerpt of your recent recording of the Bach cello suites, and I wondered if learning to play this is a rite of passage for cellists.

HARRELL: Oh, I think one would have to say so. Casals, the great old Spanish master who died just in the mid-'70s - he really was the Paganini of the cello. He was the first one in the turn of the 19th century to start to play the instrument so much better. He sort of discovered the cello suites as something more than just technical practices, and they are profound pieces of music. They aren't the "St. Matthew Passion." They're not as good, I don't think, even as the Brandenburg Concerti, but they're astounding still. When you're working with a genius like Bach or, you know - a Michelangelo etching is pretty astounding. It's not the Sistine Chapel, OK, but it's quite amazing. So that's what these suites are like. For the cellist, it is a real passage to go through - to develop one's style and to come up face to face with such masterpieces. And they require so much technically, musically, aesthetically and in every way that it's a marvelous challenge.

GROSS: Let's give a listen to your performance of the gigue from Bach's "Cello Suite No. 1 In G Major."


GROSS: My guest Lynn Harrell performing the gigue from Bach's "Cello Suite No. 1 In G Major." I really have to say it's a beautiful performance. And I think of the cello as having just a very emotionally direct sound, maybe more so than most instruments, and I don't know if that sounds silly or not.

HARRELL: No. It's perceptive of you, I think, because the cello is the only string instrument that plays, really, in the speaking and vocal singing registers of all four voices - bass, baritone, mezzo-soprano and soprano. Even the highest notes of the coloratura we can play on the cello. We often are required to by the great Romantic composers. But - so there's that immediacy of identification to be human that it has that some of the other instruments - like, the clarinet doesn't vibrate. The natural human voice does, sometimes quivers if it's very emotionally distraught. The oboe has a reed, and you can hear that it's - plays with vocal characteristics, but that it's a little bit arbitrary in - I hate to say that about the instrument that I love so much. Piano, of course, is slightly a percussive instrument. When I start talking about all these other instruments, it sounds like (laughter) I don't think any of them are any good. I love them all. But...

GROSS: Obviously, you really love cello (laughter).

HARRELL: I really love the cello for those direct qualities of communication that you mentioned.

GROSS: What do you feel physically when you play? Does your body vibrate along with the cello?

HARRELL: A little bit, yes, particularly the lower notes. The - I hold the top of the instrument against my neck in - as a sort of a contact point balanced with my - the other edge - the other side of the cello with - holding it with the knees. So a lot of the vibrations of the instrument flow into my neck and spine and chest. And particularly when you're playing very forcefully, the lower tones of the instrument - your vision sometimes is slightly blurred because you're quivering right along with the vibrations of the instrument. This, of course, has a fairly strange effect on the development of character.


GROSS: That's what you were talking about earlier. Now I understand.

HARRELL: Yes. Right.

GROSS: What do you do when you're not getting the sound you want? Every, I think, instrument has its own set of neuroses associated with it.


GROSS: What do you do when you feel like this isn't working, I need to - I have to make a change?

HARRELL: Yes. Yes, I recently got a Stradivari, one of the very great instruments of all time, made in 1673. And there are now times when I think, this instrument's terrible...

GROSS: (Laughter).

HARRELL: ...Because I've gotten used to it and I've gotten closer to wanting to make it sound a certain way. Fidget, fuss - it's just - it's all in the mind, and I try to sometimes recognize that. I remember recording and saying to the recording producer, let's listen to this tape a little bit longer because I've just started to practice something in this part of the session, and I want to see what it sounds like. And I listened, and then here I was playing a passage over and over again. And each time, as far as I could hear from the microphones and from the tape, was perfect, and yet I was struggling back and forth, over and over again, aggravatingly knocking my head against the wall. Why? (Laughter) Where was I? Oh, it's very symbiotic, kind of weird relationship that goes on there.

GROSS: One other thing. There's a small group of really brilliant cellos - cellists performing now. You are among them. And I wonder if you see yourselves as friends or competitors. You're sometimes recording the same parts of the repertoire. The repertoire isn't that vast. So is there this competitive edge to your relationship?

HARRELL: I think so. I think that's just in the nature of it. We probably think that each of us is better than the other. But on the other hand, we recognize that we are just different. And it's wonderful that, in music, in art, you can't say that Rembrandt was a greater painter than Vermeer or Goya. They're just different - Velazquez. They're just different. And we try to remember that.

But it's sometimes difficult (laughter), sometimes easy to just think that so-and-so is a wonderful cellist, but I can do this that he can't do, and not to really be truthful with oneself that that artist is able to do certain things that I'm not able to do. And those truths are sometimes difficult to live up to and to recognize and to try to do something about them. That slight competitiveness is a very healthy one, I think.

It's caused cello playing in the last generation to advance an incredible amount. In relation to the violin as a solo instrument, the cello has had, only since - let's say - 1950, the most outstanding technical accomplished virtuosos on the instrument, while the violin has had them since the late 19th century. So that's because we've all heard each other on record and broadcasts and whatnot, and we've said, oh, my gosh. That's pretty good. I better go back and practice. It's healthy.

GROSS: Lynn Harrell, I love your playing, and I thank you very much for being with us today.

HARRELL: A great delight. Thank you.

BIANCULLI: That was Lynn Harrell speaking with Terry Gross in 1987. The acclaimed cellist died last month at age 76. After a break, I review the new Hulu miniseries about Catherine the Great. It's called "The Great" and stars Elle Fanning. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF HORACE SILVER'S "OPUS DE FUNK") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Combine an intelligent interviewer with a roster of guests that, according to the Chicago Tribune, would be prized by any talk-show host, and you're bound to get an interesting conversation. Fresh Air interviews, though, are in a category by themselves, distinguished by the unique approach of host and executive producer Terry Gross. "A remarkable blend of empathy and warmth, genuine curiosity and sharp intelligence," says the San Francisco Chronicle.