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Lynn Harrell, Grammy-winning cellist known for technical mastery, dies at 76

UPDATED: Fri., May 1, 2020

Lynn Harrell, a Grammy Award-winning cellist, who was a guest of the Gonzaga University Orchestra in 2017 and 2018 in Spokane, died Monday, April 27, 2020, at his home in Santa Monica, California. He was 76. (Christian Steiner / The Spokesman-Review archives)
Lynn Harrell, a Grammy Award-winning cellist, who was a guest of the Gonzaga University Orchestra in 2017 and 2018 in Spokane, died Monday, April 27, 2020, at his home in Santa Monica, California. He was 76. (Christian Steiner / The Spokesman-Review archives)
Tim Page

Lynn Harrell, a prize-winning American cellist and teacher, renowned for the mixture of technical command and sweet songfulness of his playing over a career that spanned six decades, died April 27 at his home in Santa Monica, California. He was 76.

His son Eben Harrell confirmed the death but did not know the immediate cause, adding that heart disease ran in the family.

“The big bear of the cello is gone,” conductor Leonard Slatkin, a longtime friend, said in a statement. “Was there ever a more congenial musician? It was never work with Lynn, that smile always letting you know that he was at one with the music and eager to collaborate with you, wherever the turn of phrase went.”

For his part, Harrell was convinced that the cello had more direct appeal to an audience than any other instrument, and compared it to the human voice. “The cello covers all vocal ranges – soprano, alto, tenor and bass,” he told the New York Times in 1982. “Besides that, there is the visual appeal.” (According to his son, in later years, Harrell listened carefully to recordings of great singers as often as he did to those of great string players.)

Unlike most solo instrumentalists, Harrell began his career playing in an orchestra, so he knew not only his part but had much of the repertory committed to memory and mixed easily and happily with fellow players.

The fiercely exacting George Szell hired him for the Cleveland Orchestra’s cello section while Harrell was still a teenager and made him principal cellist at 20. He went on to play solo recitals, chamber music concerts and solo appearances with orchestra. He also appeared on television as part of “Live from Lincoln Center” and “PBS Gala of the Stars,” and was featured on more than 20 highly regarded albums.

Harrell’s recording of “Tchaikovsky: Piano Trio in A Minor” – with violinist Itzhak Perlman and pianist Vladimir Ashkenazy – won a 1981 Grammy Award for best chamber music performance. They also shared a 1987 Grammy for best chamber music performance for “Beethoven: The Complete Piano Trios.”

Harrel was a guest cellist of the Gonzaga University Orchestra in the fall of 2017 and 2018 in Spokane.

Harrell came from a musical family. His mother, Marjorie Fulton Harrell, was a violinist, and his father, Mack Harrell, was a baritone who sang for many years with the Metropolitan Opera.

Lynn Morris Harrell was born in Manhattan on Jan. 30, 1944, and moved with his parents to Dallas, where his father taught at Southern Methodist University and his mother gave private lessons. Most summers were spent in Colorado, where Mack Harrell was one of the founders and then the second director of the Aspen Music Festival and School.

Lynn Harrell started on piano at 8 and was an unenthusiastic student. But when his parents presented an evening of chamber music at the family home, he became fascinated by the cello and became a pupil of Lev Aronson, principal cellist of the Dallas Symphony.

Harrell later said he liked the instrument because he was big for his age, and it was the largest instrument he knew.

In later life, Harrell, who stood well over 6 feet and had the natural build of a quarterback with huge hands, often said that he might have chosen the double bass had he known of that instrument’s existence.

He had been an athlete in grade school, playing baseball, basketball and football. But when he began to devote all his extracurricular energies to music, he said he lost most of his friendships. “I gave up popularity, friends,” he told USC Magazine. “I was suddenly a leper. No one was the same to me. And that was very, very hurtful. Very lonely.”

Those melancholy feelings were compounded by the death of his father from cancer in 1960 and, two years later, the loss of his mother in a fatal car crash in Denton, Texas. He said only music kept him going.

Harrell came to national attention in the spring of 1960, when he shared the top prize in the National Symphony Orchestra’s Merriweather Post Contest in Washington and was booked for four performances playing the Dvorak Cello Concerto with the NSO.

Reviewing one of those concerts, Washington Post classical music critic Paul Hume wrote that the 16-year-old cellist “went through the broad lines and technical hazards of the music without the least hint of youth other than a kind of fearless approach. His tone is firm and of good quality, his technique dependable.”

He was a semifinalist in the Second Tchaikovsky International Competition in Moscow, and he made his New York Philharmonic debut in one of the legendary “Young People’s Concerts” with Leonard Bernstein.

In 1962, Szell brought Harrell into the Cleveland Orchestra – one of the finest ensembles in the world – and named him first cellist three years later. By all accounts, Szell was a taskmaster, but Harrell would always look back on his years in Cleveland with fondness.

“The music was so endless and wonderful, and I enjoyed the opportunity and challenge of playing with colleagues and adjusting to new conductors,” he told the publication Accent in 1981.

Szell died in the summer of 1970; that fall, Harrell gave his first mature New York recital at Lincoln Center with James Levine, with whom he had struck up a friendship while Levine was an intern with the orchestra.

The critical success of this venture convinced Harrell to strike out on his own. From then on, his career was established. In 1975, he shared the first Avery Fisher Prize with pianist Murray Perahia.

Harrell, a much-loved teacher, regularly offered master classes and informal coaching to fellow musicians, many of whom never forgot their debt to him.

From 1986 to 1993, he held the Gregor Piatigorsky Endowed Chair in Violoncello at the University of Southern California’s Thornton School of Music in Los Angeles. From 2002 to 2009, he was on the faculty of the Shepherd School of Music at Rice University in Houston.

“As I have been given, so it has always seemed to me, I was obliged to give to others,” he wrote in the Instrumentalist magazine. “I have always felt that I owed others a huge musical debt and that I was to pay it through the next generation.”

In 1975, he met the woman who would become his first wife, Linda Blandford, when she came to interview him before a London concert for the British newspaper the Observer. They married the following year and had twins, Eben and Katharine, whom they raised mostly on the Upper West Side of Manhattan and in California. The marriage ended in divorce.

Harrell married Helen Nightengale, a violinist and former student, in 2002; they had two children, Hanna and Noah. Survivors include his wife and children.

From a young age, Harrell worked on instruments of the finest craftsmanship. His first was a 1720 Montagnana cello that he bought with money he inherited from his parents. He later owned a 1673 Antonio Stradivarius cello that had belonged to Jacqueline du Pri. His most recent was made by Christopher Dungey in 2008.

When he flew for engagements, Harrell seldom trusted such valuable instruments to the rough handling of airline crews. In 2012, he made news when Delta Air Lines kicked him out of its frequent-flier program for registering and traveling with his cello, which had been enrolled as “Mr. Cello Harrell.”

Comedian Stephen Colbert featured Harrell’s plight on his Comedy Central show “The Colbert Report” and expressed cranky mock-conservative outrage at what he called “man on cello relationships.”

Harrell joked of being treated as “a master criminal” by the airline, but he also spoke to the more serious matter of what it means to be a professional musician.

“We grow up knowing the instrument itself has a soul and you bond with it,” he told the Guardian. “You spend all those years in a practice room all alone, except for your feelings and psychology and your instrument – it has a bonding quality.

“So when something happens to the instrument monetarily, that’s one thing,” he continued. “But the feeling that as a custodian of an instrument with hundreds of years of life, you failed – that is a scar on your soul for the rest of your life.”

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