American cellist Lynn Harrell (credit: Andrew Stuart)

Remembering Lynn Harrell

Mark Gresham | 21 MAY 2020

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On the night of April 27 the world lost as truly great artists when legendary American Cellist Lynn Harrell unexpectedly passed awaty at age 76. As reported by the New York Times, Harrell died at his home in Santa Monica, California, and according to his wife, violinist Helen Nightengale. suddenly and likely from cardiac arrest.

Born in Ne4w York City in 1944, Harrell was the son of musicians parents, baritone Mack Harrell and his violinist Marjorie McAlister Fulton. Harrell began cello studies at nine years old, and when he was 12, the family moved to Dallas, Texas,.where he studied with Lev Aronson while his father taught at Southern Methodist University. His father was also a co-founders and then second director of the Aspen Music Festival and School, so Harrell’s summers were often spent there. He attended Denton High School, but also came to study at the Juilliard School in New York with Leonard Rose, then at the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia with Orlando Cole. In 1961, at age 17, he made his Carnegie Hall debut in a Young People’s Concert with the New York Philharmonic.


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Family tragedy struck twice during Harrell’s teen years. In 1960, when was 15, his father died of cancer. In April 1962, Harrell advanced to the semifinals of the Second International Tchaikovsky Competition in Moscow. That November, his mother died due to injuries from a n automobile crash. After his mother’s death, Harrell moved around a with a single suitcase and his cello in tow, living in the homes of different family friends until he was 18, when he joined the Cleveland Orchestra, where he was principal cellist from 1964 to 1971, when he made his New York recital debut and his solo career took off.

Collaborative pianist Cary Lewis, who was for many years a significant presence in Atlanta’s chamber music scene along with his cellist wife Dorothy Hall Lewis, remembers Harrell from his own college days in Denton, Texas, at what what then known as North Texas State University (now University of North Texas). Harrell was in high school at the time, but the twio of them crossed paths. Lewis tells the story:

I knew Lynn peripherally in his early years, when his mother was teaching violin at North Texas. I spent a fair amount of time working in her studio. She was one hell opf a violinist.!In the summers, I was part of a small group of kids with whom Lynn went swimming regularly at one of the motel swimming pools.

I remember sitting with him listening to a reel-to-reel tape of his performance at some competition. He pointed out a place where he was making things up because he had had a memory slip. I was talking to my accompanying teacher Brooks Smith about that incident a few years later at Eastman, and he said he hoped I had also been listening to the pianist because he had been the pianist for that program.

I also remember sitting with about 20 other people in Miss Fulton’s living room listening to Lynn go through a trial run of the material he was taking to the Tchaikovsky Competition.

In later years, I was always too shy to present myself to him and remind him of our swimming pool days. I was content to be part of the anonymous admiring public.


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Conductor Michael Palmer remembers his first performance with Harrell as soloist was in Atlanta in the late 1960s with the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra, where Palmer was assistant then associate conductor for 10 years. At the time of that concert, Harrell was principal cellist of the Cleveland Orchestra. and many subsequent times over the years since – performances of cello concertos by Dvoraks, Haydn, Tchaikovsky, Saint-Seans and Elgar. Palmer’s last performance with Harrell was in 2016: Robert Schumann’s Cello Concerto in A minor, Op. 129 with the Bellingham Festival Orchestra. Palmer recalls:

It was always wonderful working with Lynn, but the remarkable privilege for me was being there together across all of those years to experience the maturing of a great artist. The humanity that was always there burned brighter with every passing performance together. That inspired intensity was so evident in that last performance with him. It is so sad to have lost him so soon.

Harrell would return to Atlanta to be a guest soloist with the ASO frequently until 1999 — a very close friend of the orchestra in those days. His last appearances with the ASO were in March 2015 at Symphony Hall and in the Savannah Music Festival, performing the cello Concerto of Antonín Dvořák, with Robert SPano conducting.

Cellist Jennifer Humphreys studied with Harrell at the Shepherd School of Music at Rice University in Houston, Texas, from 2002-2008, where she earned her undergraduate and masters degrees. Harrell taught there from 2002 to 2009. Humphreys was a cellist with the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra from 2011 to 2014 when she joined the Dallas Symphony Orchestra. Just last September became a member of the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra Humphreys recounts what it was like to study with Harrell:

;Mr. Harrell was larger than life. Anyone who met him or had the privilege of seeing him perform knew what a profound and powerful presence he was, physically, musically and in spirit. As a teacher, he showed an incredible sensitivity and tenderness. His eyes would fill with tears while describing a Schubert or de Falla song. He would hyper-analyze the physical aspects of the instrument and our bodies, examining the angle of a fingernail or watching a string vibrate in slow motion. He put so much thought into every aspect of playing the cello, and all of it was to have as many tools as possible to imitate the intangible and dramatic effects of the most personal of all instruments – the human voice.

Always striving to emulate singers, especially his father, Mack Harrell, he assigned summer projects of memorizing entire Verdi or Mozart operas to ensure we were immersing ourselves in this sound world and absorbing as much vibrato, phrasing and color as we could in an emotional way. Spiccato was an actor articulating speech in a giant theater. Vibrato was a sobbing mother. Mr. Harrell made the cello come alive.

I was a clueless, floundering undergraduate student when I first met Mr. Harrell, and I’m sure he had no idea what to do with me for quite some time as we slowly found our stride. But he always made me feel like I belonged and was worthy of the wisdom he had to share, and I am so grateful for the time we had together. We are all so fortunate to have experienced his unparalleled passion and generous spirit

Harrell had been scheduled to perform at the Amelia Island Chamber Music Festival in Fernandina Beach, Florida on April 5, less than a month before his death, with Atlanta pianist Elizabeth Pridgen, but the concert was canceled due to the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic.  ■


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