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Picture © Chad Batka (2010)
Cellist Lynn Harrell has been touring all over the world for the past 40 years. A real force of nature and a very passionate man, he was kind enough to meet me during his week in Boston, playing the Premiere of Augusta Read Thomas' 3rd Cello Concerto, commissioned by the Boston Symphony Orchestra. He shares with us his ideas about cello, music and life.
How did you end up playing the cello?
Well, at first I was taking piano lessons, as my brother and sister, because it was just a part of our education. My father was a great singer, a bass baritone. My mother was a violinist but stopped playing to raise her children, although I always heard the violin playing in the house. I never liked the piano so I said that if I really had to pick an instrument (and yes, I had to!), it would be the cello. My mother said later that when she would sit me in front of the phonograph and play the Bach Suites performed by Pablo Casals, I was just fascinated. But I think it is a connection between my father’s voice and the string playing of my mother. My father had been a violinist, but not a very good one, before he became a singer. I sort of practiced before school, 15-20 minutes every day, from age 8 to 11. Then we moved from the New York City area down to Dallas, Texas. My father wanted to do some more teaching, and the Southern Methodist University offered him to be an artist in residence. They must have paid him well because his work at the Metropolitan Opera was starting to pay very well already. My mother felt quite lost in Texas and my father wasn’t very happy at the school either. Everything he was trying to do was being blocked and he also ended up falling ill during that time. He went through four years of various treatments and finally died of cancer when I was 15. My mother had a position in Denton, north of Dallas, so I moved there for one year of high school. I was very good in Mathematics and Physics, but by the time I was 15 I was already winning national competitions. Our housekeeper, much like in the movie The Help, told me in the late 80s that I used to tell her that I was going to be a great cellist and play at Carnegie Hall. Apparently, I used to say this when I was only 12 years old. So when I saw the movie The Help, it really hit home. Actually, I found her son through Facebook, and he actually took up the cello after his 75th birthday! It was so great to find him, because his mother, who had died already, meant so much to my upbringing. My parents were busy and I was able to open up to her, and what greater gift? I didn’t realize it was so important until I saw the movie The Help, and remembered our conversations in the 80s, shortly before she died. She was in the laundry department at the Dallas Country Club.
So, of all the competitions I won, definitely the biggest one was the Avery Fischer Award, which I won with pianist Murray Perahia. We were the first laureates. It was a cash award, but also mostly a vote of confidence from the musical community, and that helped a great deal. I left the Cleveland Orchestra when George Szell died and I wanted to try my hand at playing solo. The funny thing is that I actually had never had an orchestra experience before I came to Cleveland. All my cello teachers thought I was too special a talent to spend time playing in the school orchestra, so my first orchestra was Cleveland, and boy, was I blown away! Of course, the music was phenomenal, and with a great musician like Szell and an orchestra such as Cleveland, I was very happy. My mother died in a car accident when I was 17, which is when I played for George Szell. It so happened that a cellist had left the cello section in Cleveland and he offered me the position. I think he did so because he had conducted my father at the Met. After a couple of weeks playing with the orchestra, he called me up and said: “Your father was one of the greatest musicians I ever conducted. What happened to you? You don’t know how to follow a conductor and you don’t know the repertoire. You play the cello well, but you have no musical education.” Of course, I was immediately in tears but I also realized that he was right. So I began a long journey of about 10 years before I felt like a real soloist, learning music, new repertoire, studying scores, reading composers’ letters. At that time, I was helped a lot by Jimmy Levine. Although we were virtually the same age, he had been doing that since he was 9 or 10 years old, and he was so much more experienced and developed than I was. It was then that he introduced me to opera. He said: “You know, your dead was a great singer. I heard him sing Brahms, Schubert and Wolff in Aspen, and of course his recording of Wozzeck is just off the charts.” I said: “Oh, I have that recording! But I have never listened to it.” His jaw dropped and he told me to come over to his house to listen to it. By that time, Jimmy could already conduct through the full Wozzeck by memory. Remember, we were just 17 years old! He played me the death scene from Wozzeck and I was just amazed. Suddenly, dad became this figure of immense depth and breadth of musicianship. So, afterwards, I felt about 10 years of guilt that I had not taken advantage of him as a musician, although I was just emerging as someone who would make music my life when he died. But then someone pointed their finger at me (physically!) and said “You know, your dad could have shared his music with you!” So then I went about 10 years of being angry at him, so there was no winning! But both were true. Then I came to terms with all this and wrote with my ex-wife some words for a concert I was giving in Aspen. This program also became a radio program afterwards, “Songs my father taught me”, and it won 3rd Prize in a world competition of radio programs. It sort of purged the ghost!
I was always fascinated with the aspect of Mozart coming to terms with his father through his work. Like the stupid Count in Figaro, the Commander in Don Giovanni or Sarastro in The Magic Flute, who is this kingly magnificent person who has helped young people. I went in my own way through this journey and came out of it much stronger and much better. When I hear the most talented of the young cellists, I hope and pray that they will meet mentors who can open them up to aspects of music and the profession that they were not aware of. Jimmy Levine did that for me, so did George Szell and Robert Shaw, the choral director, who was my godfather and my original reason to go to Cleveland to visit him after my mother died. He is the one who advised me to play for Szell.
Since you are talking about Cleveland, I would like to talk with you about the way solo careers started then. I think 50 years ago, it was quite common for solo cellists to come out of orchestras. Leonard Rose, Paul Tortelier, Janos Starker…almost everyone.
Everyone! Up to Jacqueline du Pré! And Yo-Yo, who was the next generation. I think this is partly because the development of young musicians has been quicker and also because the accentuation on building a career has gone down 10 to 15 years at least. In 1950, a young artist was 30 or 35 years old. Now a young artist is 14! I have a former student who has a good principal cello position in Germany. He is in his mid-twenties but feels like he has to make his choice now if he wants to try out for a solo career or he might just miss the boat!
When I finally left Cleveland, which I wanted to do after Szell died and preferably before another conductor was appointed (it turned out to be Lorin Maazel), I missed the orchestra music terribly. There I was playing the Saint-Saens concerto and the Boccherini-Grützmacher, or even the Dvorak concerto, but it was not to me like the Beethoven Emperor Piano Concerto or the Brahms Violin Concerto. Even though the cello literature is great for what it is. But for me a great night was playing the Mozart Requiem!
Did you feel that playing this repertoire in orchestra actually fed your musical career afterwards, even if it was solo playing?
Yes, absolutely, I developed my musicianship during my time in Cleveland with the orchestra. I learned the orchestra style of playing, the chamber music style of playing, because I played a lot with Jimmy Levine and some of my orchestra colleagues, although Jimmy and I were much younger than anybody else. Actually, Mendelssohn writes about his Octet: “I see now that my Octet should be played in an orchestra style”. I didn’t know what that meant when I was 18 years old. Then I learned that when you play a piece like Beethoven 5th Symphony, you really have to dig in! You can’t quite play that way by yourself or even in an audition, but that’s what’s required with the job. So when I went off to start my solo career, it took me at least six months to get back in a fine solo shape. I was scratching too much, my intonation was not where it needed to be. I had a lot of work to do. Then I had to find a manager, which I did by renting Alice Tully Hall for a night and Jimmy Levine and I played a duo recital. It was long before he ended up at the Metropolitan Opera. There were very few people in the audience but some managers were there and I got one. I had only five concerts my first year. I was very lucky that I had saved money from my time in the orchestra. But those were unhappy times. I had read a book by William Townsend, called ‘Up the Organization’, which claimed that any creative person should change what they were doing every five years…and I had been in my orchestra for 9 years, so I realized it was time for a change. I was not very happy about it at first, but then I slowly got into it. I don’t know if it was because the applause was all for me? I don’t think so. I didn’t do it to become famous or wealthier. I just wanted to play the pieces written for my instrument better than it had been done before, closer to what the composer wanted, simply more successful. And works like the sonatas by Brahms, Beethoven, Schubert and the Dvorak and Elgar concertos or Bloch’s Schelomo just seemed to energize me. From then, it all continued that way.
There is a very special video recording of your performance of Kol Nidrei by Bruch for the Pope John Paul II. Listening to it, I felt like I was forgetting the cello and just hearing an opera singer. Can you tell us about your interest in imitating the human voice on the cello, and what tools you use to reach that ideal?
Also when I was in Cleveland, it was Jimmy Levine who pointed out to me that every major composer wrote their major works with voice. Wagner of course, even if in the instrumental world we have all these great overtures and orchestrations. Liszt and Chopin wrote many songs. Of course, Beethoven, Brahms, Mozart, and Schubert, who has I think 70 CDs worth of songs! That’s the key! I love quotes like Beethoven saying: “Even the pianoforte can sing!” Imitating the singing art is the highest achievement on any instrument. Every cello teacher tells his students: “Sing! Sing!” but what this means is rather complex. Elvis Presley was a singer, so was Caruso, so is a light coloratura, so what do you do? I started imitating aspects of singing in much greater details and I would listen for hours on end to recordings and live performances, trying to find out what happened to the width, the speed, the evenness of the vibrato, in every register. Looking for what happens in specific dramatic moments: fear, hatred, jealousy…Othello is a great one for all that. Finding what happens at the beginning of a breath, and at the end of a breath. There is a wonderful phrase that my father sings in his last recording, a Bach Cantata: “I can’t wait until I get to heaven and eternity”. The phrase has to be sung in one breath and it is so long that you have to take a big breath yourself, as a listener, when he gets to the end of it, or you might just die! Bach did that on purpose. So I am very interested in how the breath affects the sound from a singer’s point of view.
I remember Beverly Sills, a great American soprano, who came to Cleveland to sing the opera Semele by Handel. She had the most gorgeous trills and it inspired me to invent different ways of trilling that I have not yet seen any other string player use. One way is to start the trill with a slight slide from the bottom note, which singers do. Another way came to me from reading treaties on Baroque performance. I found out that they often call a trill a “shake” actually! So I found a way to shake my bow instead of my left hand, which I sometime use for nervousness in sound or desperate emotional moments, like the return of the slow movement in the Elgar concerto. There is such a “heart-and-throat” quality to this passage that it needs more than the variety from one aspect of cello playing, which is the vibrato. Articulation is important. The bite of the bow and the smoothness of the changes of bows are equivalent to consonants in a language that give a variety of tools to create a vocal line. A singer who specializes in German repertoire will have a very unique way of singing tailored to this specific language. So my articulations will change on the cello, depending if I am playing an Italian sonata, or a Brahms sonata. I keep looking for new ideas all the time and recently discovered a couple of things that I am really excited about!
You might be the only cellist I know who mentions using multiple bow holds. Can you expand on that?
When I was very young, I realized that there are a lot of great bow arms and all of them use their bow in a very different way. As a result, they sound very different. But the difference between one cellist and another, for a lay listener, is very small. It just sounds like a cello! But if one hears Domingo or Caruso next to Carreras or Pavarotti, there is quite a difference. If I hold the bow with a very high wrist (the so-called Russian school, which apparently is Czech and not Russian!), I get a very different sound than if I hold the bow with a very low wrist. I get a different kind of bow change if I flop the bow through the fingers like Leonard Rose. I get a very different kind of attack (or consonant) if I do nothing like Heifetz or Piatigorsky. I started experimenting with those things to try to achieve variety in my own playing.
Also, there are different technical qualities to each bow hold. If you hold the bow very shallowly, away from your top knuckles, you have much more room to manipulate the stick, there is a very flexible quality to that way of holding the bow. But then it lacks power. Whereas if you hold the bow with a low wrist and your top knuckles resting on top of the stick, you will get more power but also lose some flexibility. I didn’t want to have only one option, I wanted to have it all! So the only way to solve this was to be able to hold the bow in multiple ways.
Aside of your performing career, you have also been teaching for a long time. What do you think are your top priorities as a teacher?
If I were to answer your question in cellistic terms, I would tell you: sound. But that’s not all. My top priority is to open up their minds and their brains to what an amazing repertoire we have and how it has such an emotional and psychological power. The fact that we can be a part of that, in our role as cellists, is one of the most beautiful gifts that will ever be given! I want them to be aware of that.
On a cello point of view, I would care about the sound, like my most major teacher Leonard Rose. I want it to be a full, healthy tone, in all dynamic levels. At first, it means studying your bow placement, the amount of hairs that you use, the speed of the bow and the vibrato. So that every note is always full and vibrant and the most basic sound you produce is always healthy, strong and flexible. That means I will often ask them to practice some etudes or scales that they have to play loud, so they can develop more musculature. If you struggle to press enough, that will always come through. But if you have enough power so that you can keep some in reserve and press the stick through the hair very easily at the tip, then you can be relaxed. Even though the basic amount of pressure on the strings has to be quite a lot, it also has to be effortless. If I play a mf like I play on the cello on a violin, I might just crush it. It takes a lot of power to get the sound out. Then it takes a lot of bow speed also. Some cellists, like Leonard Rose or Zara Nelsova, played with a very concentrated slow bow. But then I realized that there were fast-bow aficionados who might not get the gripping sound you get close to the bridge but their sound is very floating and beautiful. So I tried to develop that in my own playing.
My latest discovery is that there are lots of times when we start moving the bow a little bit faster in a crescendo, and press harder, but it is possible to move the bow fast and press less, keeping the decibel output the same with a different color. Heifetz is one of the greatest exponents of that. I watched a number of his videos and compared the same passages with videos of modern violinists, such as Anne-Sophie Mutter or Kyung-Wha Chung. I noticed that very often Heifetz suddenly speeds up the bow or slows it down to a much greater extent. Once I found that out, I was very excited to start experimenting with it.
Another discovery is that the vibrato is a natural function of the voice, and therefore it should always be there. If I play a slow bow close to the bridge with no left hand motion, it just sounds “non-vibrato”. If I add only the tiniest bit of vibrato, like if I was a bit cold and shivering, immediately the ear can hear that. So that’s vibrato. Every note should have a bit of vibrato. In the Mendelssohn D Major sonata there is this passage where we have to play an A open string. It’s not going to vibrate. Well, I vibrate it with the bow for a second.
And of course you shape the width and speed of your vibrato according to where you are in the phrase.
Another example is in this concerto I am playing this week by Augusta Read-Thomas. I am reaching this very low note, which I vibrate very slowly, the same way a bass would sing it in an opera. And right before I get to that low note, I speed up the vibrato just a bit, because I found out that this is what a singer would do. And sometimes we forget to vibrate for very technical reasons. Often, if we shift to the first finger, the start of the note we shift to is not vibrated. Why? Because we want to find the note first! Look at this phrase in the Dvorak concerto, where almost everyone forgets to vibrate when they shift to the high B, on their way to the high E:
Changing this bad habit is a difficult task but it turns the cello into flesh and blood instead of just a box.
You are now in Boston, about to play the Premiere of Augusta Read Thomas’ 3rd Cello Concerto. How important is it for you to bring new pieces to the audience and can you tell us more about this specific piece?
When I was in Cleveland, Pierre Boulez came often to conduct and that was a big influence on me. George Szell didn’t conduct much new music. Although once I was practicing Schoenberg’s Kammersymphonie Opus 9, Szell stopped by and said: “That is Schoenberg’s Opus 9!” So obviously he knew about those pieces, but he didn’t do them. It was at that time that I read some books by Robert Kraft, who followed Stravinsky around. In one of them, Stravinsky is quoted saying that people who specialize in contemporary music don’t help the cause of this music as much as those accepted beloved musical stars who made their career in the classical and romantic repertoire and then play some contemporary music. That planted a seed in my mind, and of course the greatest example of that is Rostropovich. The greatest commissioner of new works in history! No other person ever did so much for new music. I played the Donald Erb cello concerto, and of course Dutilleux and Lutoslawski, which I played with the composer. But am I not nearly at Slava’s level, neither at Yoyo’s, as a commissioner of new pieces. However, it is vitally important to do it. I actually told Dutilleux that playing his concerto “Tout un monde lointain” was one of the most revitalizing and heaven-opening experiences of my entire life. It is also partly selfish: I want to gain from those musical minds a new aspect of what music means and what it can portray.
The Boston Symphony Orchestra came to me asking about commissioning a new piece from Augusta Read Thomas. I listened to some pieces and was fascinated. It is very contemporary, indeed! Of course, the idea of playing it with the BSO was a thrill to me. When I met her, we conferred on what I think the cello can do and also on what great composers have done to manage the balance issue. The cello is a very dynamic figure and can absolutely philosophically dominate, but unfortunately it is a very soft instrument. Strauss made one miscalculation in the Don Quixote. He figured that if the whole orchestra stopped, then the soloist would be heard.
But the over-hang from the passage before is enough to completely obliterate the cello, even in recordings! So I pointed some of those things out to her. I showed her what Victor Herbert did, and that Dvorak learned from him, that if you have in a fast passage some of the notes duplicated by instruments in the orchestra, even though you can’t quite hear the soloist, you get an idea of what the notes are. There is a perfect example in the Dvorak concerto, when the cello plays those fast arpeggios. The top two notes of each chord from the solo cello part are also played by the flutes, and the bottom ones are played by the violas in pizzicato:
So even though you may not hear the soloist, you feel like you do. You may hear the articulation, and then imagine that you hear the notes. A cellist would have to play quite out of tune and very loudly to be ever noticed there. Not to say that you should not learn to play the passage correctly, but I always felt that way about the way it was written. I told her: “Short cadenzas are marvelous”. Dvorak uses them all the time:
She took all this aboard absolutely marvelously. A cello alone against percussion will come through, if the cello is the only string instrument playing.
The cello part is quite challenging too, with plenty of notes in the higher register.
Yes. Actually, there are some long harmonics that I didn’t practice at all, and then when I had my piano rehearsal with Augusta and Christoph Eschenbach, the harmonics were coming and going and I realized I better spend more time practicing them before the concert! I think the very high range interests the contemporary composers. Although I don’t think any composer has written a cello concerto that goes higher than the high E in Tchaikovsky’s Rococo Variations. It is the same note at the end of Prokofiev’s Symphonie Concertante. Composers love writing in the high register because it spreads the range of the instrument. I am really delighted in playing Augusta’s piece and it has grown with me in a significant way. I feel much more now than I did when I learned Henri’s piece 25 years ago but I don’t feel yet an emotional connection to this music. I feel stimulated in many ways, but not to the point where I want to cry or feel the “malaise of the mind” like in Dutilleux. But maybe it’s just generational? I am getting old and those young people carry the meaning of music in different planes. In certain respect, I want to do more commissioning, but of course I am not in control of everything since I am not the one paying the bills.
John Williams wrote a very interesting piece for you: “A Young Person’s Guide to the Cello”. Can you tell us more about it?
Oh yes! Well, you know, first, he revised his cello concerto for me. He told me he was not happy with it and I told him he could just revise it. Prokofiev did that for his cello concerto. He told me that he was getting old, to which I replied that Verdi wrote Othello when he was 85! I think a couple of people are playing his concerto, including some German cellist and Robert deMaine, the former principal cellist in Detroit, who is now with the Los Angeles Philharmonic.
I love the piece you just mentioned! Obviously the title is a play on Britten’s piece “A Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra”. It’s cute and funny and quite in a contemporary harmonic language. It shows everything that a cello can do.
What do you think makes the cello or the cellists special?
We, cellists, are special because we embrace our instrument. We wrap our arms around it. It is a companion that is very much life-size! I was playing a concerto recently and told the concertmaster: “Boy, that instrument is small!” Cellists also have a variety of functions through their music that makes for personality development. Also, if we talk about childhood experiences and how they affect the rest of our lives, I mean…spending time in a room alone, in puberty, with very emotional music and a cello, it affects us! The function of the cello sometimes is just holding the building, along with the double-basses. We are the stability. Sometimes we are in the midst of the 2nd violins and violas, where we have a collaborative role. And sometimes we have the solo voice. Often in the Beethoven String Quartets, the cello is higher than any other instrument. He did that on purpose. There are those multiple functions in the cello that I think form the personality. Violinists don’t have clubs, while there are cello societies all over the world. There are some double-bass societies as well. But the most gregarious ones of the string family are the cellists. I think it’s partly because of the variety of demands in our repertoire and partly because of the physical nature of the instrument.
Does this multi-tasking ability explain the existence of cello ensembles?
Oh yes, we cellists get together a great deal more. Our minds think that way. You don’t see violinists transcribing Bach’s Chaconne for 4 violins. They would rather break the chords awkwardly, but alone! But cellists will get together and play the chords beautifully together, nice and smooth. It is very curious! (laughs)
I know you are so passionate about the cello. Do you have other interests, aside of cello and music?
At various times, I have had to give up my pursuit of chess, because it was taking over my life. I haven’t yet played with anyone across the board. My wife wants me to join a chess club. But I play on the internet, at www.chess.com, you can play all kind of ways there. There are also lots of videos of the greatest players, the greatest chess minds, and analyses of their games. That’s absolutely marvelous. There is a rook and pawn endgame, where each side has two rooks and the same number of pawns. One of the players is Akiba Rubinstein, who was one of the greatest chess geniuses in endgames, maybe particularly in rook endgames. Without his opponent making any mistake really, he manages to get a win! To go through the videotape and see the steps and the concept that Rubinstein is envisioning is beautiful. The game is very disciplined but also very creative. The greatest moments of the greatest players are visions of spontaneity that defy analysis. When Bobby Fischer, when he was 13 years old, went on a 25-moves winning game because of a knight and queen sacrifice, it’s just like looking at a beautiful Leonardo or a Rembrandt. It’s more than just painting. You see La Pieta and you look at it for a while, and you sense the absence of breath of the corpse. Those are just great things and music encompasses all that, which is why we have the best profession in the world!
I think we are getting to the end of our conversation. Is there anything else you would like to add?
Yes. John Williams wrote his solo cello piece for me when he found out what my HEARTbeats Foundation does, going to Nepal and visiting orphanages full of children who are children of war, famine, and diseases. So he wrote that piece for me with that in mind and that is really how our friendship has started. The foundation is certainly, next to music, the most important thing that I feel I have ever done. I suppose there is a connection to my own childhood, losing my parents early, being disconnected from my brother and sister, who were much older than I was, and having to fend for myself. I moved to Cleveland when I was 17 with a suitcase and a cello. That was all that I had. What I did have though was how music was a saving grace for my life. So that aspect is incredibly important for me. Do you know that during the 2nd World War, they set up cots for orphans where the milk bottle could be held over and the children could get their milk directly? But the children would still starve and die. Only very recently did they do tests with baby chimpanzees in a room. They set up a hard plastic replica of a chimpanzee mother, with milk bottles for her nipples. And they also set up a very soft, warm and cuddly one, on another side of the room. All of them went to the warm and cuddly one. It is more important than the food! Somewhere in our psyche, this connection is what matters. When we go to Nepal, we bring Nepalese instruments for the kids, and we all play together and dance together, having great fun with popular songs. I don’t give them cello lessons! Sometimes they draw some art while I play. We enrich their lives in ways that nobody has before. And music does that. And why it does that is only beginning to be understood. So it’s the most important thing for me now, being able to devote more and more time to that project. It’s very exciting.
Thanks again for taking the time to talk with me today. You definitely shared plenty of interesting ideas!
I apologize if when you practice tomorrow you can’t play anymore because I threw all those ideas at you!