Acclaimed American cellist Lynn Harrell died on April 27. His sudden death was not associated with the coronavirus. The news sent shock waves throughout the world of international music.
On Thursday, Carnegie Hall will stage an online tribute that will be streamed at noon Mountain Standard Time at www.carnegiehall.org. And, not so astonishingly, given Harrell’s place in the higher reaches of contemporary classical music, more than a dozen of his colleagues will perform. Only Carnegie Hall could pull off such a tribute: “A superstar roster of fellow cellists celebrate Harrell’s life, including performances of Klengel’s ‘Hymnus.’”
Published in 1920, “Hymnus,” is an extraordinary, six-minute work for 12 cellos. That’s rare by itself and difficult to imagine in the COVID-19 era of self-distancing. Among the cellists who will perform on Thursday will be Yo-Yo Ma, Gautier Capuçon and Evelyn De Silva-Maisky. The program is part of a free online series titled “Live with Carnegie Hall,” which was created to celebrate the 125th anniversary of the historic site.
A life well livedHarrell was often referred to as a gentle giant. At 6 feet 4 inches tall, he towered over his colleagues, but according to friends, his humor and humanity leavened his imposing presence.
Born in Manhattan on January 30, 1944, Harrell was one of three children to parent musicians. His father, Mack Harrell, was a well-regarded baritone at the Metropolitan Opera, and his mother, Marjorie Fulton Harrell, was a successful violinist. As a boy, Lynn Harrell studied the piano and later the cello, but he was always drawn to sports – partly because of his size, passion and abilities – football, basketball, baseball and later golf and tennis.
When Harrell was 15, his life changed dramatically. In 1960, Mack Harrell, age 50, died of cancer. Two years later, Marjorie died in a car accident. Young Lynn Harrell lived with various family friends, taking his cello, his lifelong companion, with him.
Ironically, the 1960s were also a decade for rapid professional development. In New York, he studied at the Juilliard School with the renown cellist Leonard Rose. In spring 1960, Harrell, 16, shared top honors in a competition with the National Symphony Orchestra in Washington, D.C. As a result, he performed the Dvorak Cello Concerto with the NSO in four later performances that garnered strong reviews. He was also a semifinalist in the Tchaikovsky International Competition in Moscow and made his New York Philharmonic debut with Leonard Bernstein in one of the legendary “Young People’s Concerts.”
In this tumultuous period, Harrell’s godfather, choral conductor Robert Shaw, suggested and secured an audition with George Szell, the formidable conductor of the Cleveland Symphony. At 18, Harrell passed and took a seat in the cello section. Two years later, he was named principal. Harrell remained with the CSO until 1971, when he moved back to New York and launched a solo career.
Harrell’s performances and recordings are legendary. In 1975, he shared the first Avery Fisher Prize with pianist Murray Perahia. Thereafter, Harrell performed with orchestras all over the world. His catalog of more than 50 recordings can be traced online. It brims with solo, chamber and orchestral works.
Two particular performances are mentioned in every biography: Harrell’s 1994 performance of Max Bruch’s “Kol Nidre” at the Vatican for Pope John Paul and the chief rabbi of Rome to commemorate the victims of the Holocaust. Miraculously, you can watch it on YouTube.com.
“Dad was at the height of his career,” his son, Eben Harrell, said in an interview earlier this week about the Papal Concert. “He was invited to play for the pope. Dad’s first teacher was Lev Aronson. He was a father figure for Dad and also a Holocaust survivor. That made the performance even more meaningful. Later in life, Dad converted to Judaism.”
Over time, Harrell taught at various institutions, including the Cleveland Institute of Music, the Juilliard School and The Royal Academy of Music in London. To this day, the Dallas Symphony Orchestra’s Lynn Harrell Concerto Competition carries his name.
“The big bear of the cello is gone,” Conductor Leonard Slatkin said. “Was there ever a more congenial musician?”
Judith Reynolds is an arts journalist and member of the American Theatre Critics Association.