Even the most gifted musicians are never guaranteed a steady career. At a young age, Lynn Harrell knew there were easier ways to make a living.
“Becoming a musician was a tremendous amount of time and effort and expense,” Harrell said in a recent telephone interview. “Even if you become a wonderful musician, you can have an OK life, but the recompense is much less.”
Harrell, born in New York City to professional musicians, picked up the cello at age 8 and began his musical studies in Dallas before moving to the Julliard School and the Curtis Institute of Music.
“My parents didn’t force music on me or my brother or sister, but I took to the cello in a way they recognized,” he said. “They said, ‘Well, it looks like Lynn wants to be a musician no matter what.’ ”
Harrell, 73, is a celebrated classical musician and recording artist, having performed around the world alongside too many prestigious orchestras to list. He also was famously kicked off the Delta Airlines’ frequent flyer program, which earned him the status of a “Person Destroying America” by “The Colbert Report” (see story below).
Harrell, of course, never assumed any of that would happen. He was always focused on the music.
“Music can help sort something out that words can’t,” Harrell said. “If one can have the kind of sensitivity to find those things and put them into sound, then the music can come alive. It’s not just something that is pretty or makes us feel good. It can make us feel very complex emotions.
“At Christmas time, it’s those Christmas carols that get under our skin,” Harrell continued. “They give us a sense of warmth. That’s part of the power music has, and I embrace that absolutely and fully, never caring about whether I was going to become a professional musician.
Harrell will perform with the Gonzaga Symphony Orchestra on Monday as the featured soloist on Édouard Lalo’s Cello Concerto in D Minor.
“There was a time the Lalo concerto was the premiere work for the cello, but it’s sort of fallen by the wayside,” Harrell said. “It is wonderfully orchestrated and it has a great panache and tenderness to it.”
Harrell has been a frequent guest of many top orchestras around the world, including New York, Chicago, London, Munich and Berlin, and has traveled extensively throughout Europe, Asia and Australia. His discography covers more than 30 recordings, and he’s won two Grammy Awards for his collaborations with Itzhak Perlman and Vladimir Ashkenazy.
Even with all he’s accomplished, Harrell still challenges himself, likening his process to the basketball player who strives to sink every free throw.
“You want to be able to do something more efficiently each and every time you do it,” Harrell said. “I’m one who believes no matter how good it is, it could be better, and sometimes that’s on an emotional level. How you handle your instrument, essentially is just a tool to reaching out to other human beings and having them feel the same thing. It’s storytelling without words.”
Harrell attempted a new kind of storytelling in the dramatic short film, “Cello,” in which he plays a musician who is diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis. The short, written and directed by Angie Su, is playing the film festival circuit this fall.
Harrell had never acted prior to the short, but the process gave him a better understanding of how he interprets music.
“I came to realize how I define myself as a musician is being sensitive to interpersonal and dramatic situations, and I like to bring those out,” Harrell said. “I’m seeing so much of the connection between making music in a way that will communicate depth of feeling.”
Harrell takes on Delta, Colbert
When Lynn Harrell travels around the world for performances, he always buys a second seat for his cello. In many cases, musicians are allowed to accrue frequent flyer miles from that second seat. But in 2012, Delta Airlines kicked Harrell (and his cello) out of their program after 11 years, confiscated the miles on both accounts and banned him for life.
Harrell blogged about the experience on his website, which attracted the attention of Stephen Colbert, then the headliner of Comedy Central’s popular “The Colbert Report.” Harrell then participated in a segment of the show where the bloviating character of “Stephen Colbert” condemned the musician’s inappropriate relationship with his cello.
In the segment, Harrell claims, “I think of a cello as a fellow human being, I give it a name, it’s alive and living and communicates about deep feelings. The cello has been my companion my entire life.”
Then, in a voiceover, Colbert says, “Yes, his only companion … if you don’t count his wife.”
“Then they somehow got this very angry look from my wife,” Harrell said. “It just was something so amazing, and I’ve gotten so many marvelous comments about it.”
The segment, titled “People Who Are Destroying America - Lynn Harrell,” is still available to view on the Comedy Central website and app.
“I was on an airplane once (with my cello) and the person behind me slipped me a note that said, “Lynn Harrell, you are destroying America,” he said.
Harrell and his cello still receive frequent flyer miles from some other airlines.
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