Cellist  Lynn  Harrell

A Conversation with Bruce Duffie


The American cellist, Lynn Harrell, was born January 30, 1944 in New York City. His father was baritone Mack Harrell (1909-1960), and his mother, Marjorie McAlister Fulton (1909-1962), was a violinist. At the age of 8, Lynn decided to learn to play the cello, taking initial lessons with Heinrich Joachim (1910-2002) of the New York Philharmonic Orchestra. When he was 12, his family moved to Dallas, Texas, where he studied with Lev Aronson (1912-1988), the first to recognize his talent. Harrell says that Aronson "showed me passion for the instrument, for music, and for life." After attending Denton High School, Harrell studied at the Juilliard School in New York with Leonard Rose (1918-1984). Harrell then went to the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia for further studies with Orlando Cole (1910-2010), who recommended that he join an orchestra as preparation for his desired solo career. He made his debut in 1961 playing with the New York Philharmonic Orchestra at Carnegie Hall.

When Lynn was almost 16, his father died of cancer, and when he was 18, his mother, while on the faculty as violinist in residence at the University of North Texas College of Music, died from injuries sustained from a two-vehicle crash while traveling from Denton to Fort Worth with pianist Jean Mainous to perform a recital. Just before his mother had died, in April 1962, Harrell had withdrawn from Denton High School in his junior year to advance to the semifinals of the Second International Tchaikovsky Competition in Moscow.

Lynn consulted with his godfather, Robert Shaw (1927-1978), who was, at the time, choral director of the Cleveland Orchestra under Georg Szell (1897-1970). Shaw arranged an audition for Harrell, who, at the age of 18, won a spot in the orchestra. "After losing my mother," as Harrell put it, "I moved around to different family friends' houses with my one suitcase and cello until I was 18, when I joined the Cleveland Orchestra. In part, I got that job because Szell knew my father through their collaboration at the Metropolitan Opera." Harrell was a cellist with the Cleveland Orchestra and its principal cellist from 1964 to 1971.

Harrell's years at Cleveland yielded a lifelong friendship with the orchestra's associate conductor, James Levine (1943 -  ), who helped acquaint Harrell with a wide range of repertoire, particularly the music of the post-World War II era. Levine inspired Harrell to study all aspects of his own playing style. Rather than simply learning the cello parts of the orchestral pieces he played, he studied the full scores. He has maintained that habit during his solo career, studying all aspects of the accompaniment to the solo works he plays. He strongly urges string players contemplating a solo career to follow his lead and first play in an orchestra or chamber ensemble. When Szell passed away, Harrell was 27 and felt he was ready to pursue his solo career, so he left the Cleveland Orchestra.

Harrell made his recital debut in New York in 1971. For his first engagement in New York, the initial audience turnout was dismal. He subsisted on a small number of concerts, and managed to attract the attention of savvy New York impresarios. In 1972 he was invited to appear as soloist with the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center. The New York Times enthused, "This young man has everything." His career began to build, and in 1975 it reached a decisive turning point when he won the prestigious Avery Fisher Prize, launching his solo career into the international limelight. Subsequently, Harrell has become known as one of the world's finest cellists, performing internationally as a recitalist, chamber musician, and soloist with leading orchestras and ensembles. His presence is felt throughout the musical world.

Harrell is a frequent guest of many leading orchestras including the Boston Symphony Orchestra, Chicago Symphony Orchestra, New York Philharmonic Orchestra, Philadelphia Orchestra, San Francisco Symphony Orchestra, Ottawa Symphony Orchestra, Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra, and the National Symphony Orchestra (Washington, DC). In Europe he partners with the orchestras of London, Munich, Berlin, Tonhalle (Zurich), and Israel. He has also toured extensively to Australia and New Zealand as well as the Far East, including Japan, Korea, Malaysia, Taiwan and Hong Kong. In the summer of 1999 Harrell was featured in a three-week “Lynn Harrell Cello Festival” with the Hong Kong Philharmonic. He regularly collaborates with such noted conductors as James Levine, Sir Neville Marriner, Kurt Masur, Zubin Mehta, André Previn, Sir Simon Rattle, Leonard Slatkin, Yuri Temirkanov, Michael Tilson Thomas and David Zinman.

Among Harrell’s chamber music partners are pianists Vladimir Ashkenazy, Michel Béroff, Bruno Canino, Stephen Kovacevich, Robert Levin, and Konstantin Lifschitz; violinists Nigel Kennedy, Anne-Sophie Mutter, Itzhak Perlman; clarinetist Richard Stoltzman, and others.

An important part of Harrell’s life is summer music festivals, which include appearances at the Verbier Festival in Switzerland, the Aspen and Grand Tetons festivals, and the Amelia Island Festival. A special part of his life is the Aspen Music Festival, where he has spent his summers performing and teaching for nearly 50 years. He is the recipient of numerous awards including the Piatigorsky Award, and the Ford Foundation Concert Artists' Award.

On April 7, 1994, Harrell appeared at the Vatican with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Gilbert Levine in the Papal Concert to Commemorate the Shoah. The audience for this historic event, which was the Vatican's first official commemoration of the Holocaust, included Pope John Paul II and the Chief Rabbi of Rome. Harrell also appeared on the 1994 Grammy Awards broadcast, performing with Itzhak Perlman and Pinchas Zukerman.

Harrell has been on the faculty at several music schools and conservatories, including the Royal Academy of Music in London, the Aspen Music Festival, the Cleveland Institute of Music, and the Juilliard School. He served as the Music Director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic Institute from 1988 to 1992. From 1986 to 1993, he held the post of "Gregor Piatigorsky Endowed Chair in Violoncello" at the USC Thornton School of Music in Los Angeles. He was only the second person to ever hold the title, following Piatigorsky himself. Most recently he was on the faculty of the Shepherd School of Music at Rice University until his retirement in the spring of 2009. From 1985 to 1993 he held the International Chair for Cello Studies at the Royal Academy of Music in London and in 1993 he became Principal of the Royal Academy in London, a post he held through 1995. In June, 2010 along with his wife, violinist Helen Nightengale, he founded the HEARTbeats Foundation, a 501(c) charity. Based in Los Angeles, the HEARTbeats Foundation strives to help children in need harness the power of music to better cope with, and recover from, the extreme challenges of poverty and conflict, in hope of creating a more peaceful, sustainable world for generations to come. Mr. Harrell serves as a board officer and Artist Ambassador, a capacity that allows him to work directly with children in in need.

His extensive discography include the solo works, orchestral works, numerous premieres, and collaborations with the world's foremost artists. Highlights from an extensive discography of more than 30 recordings include the complete J.S. Bach’s Cello Suites (BWV 1007-1012) (London/Decca), the world-premiere recording of Victor Herbert’s Cello Concerto No. 1 with the Academy of Saint Martin-in-the-Fields led by Neville Marriner (London/Decca), the William Walton Concerto with Simon Rattle and the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra (EMI), and the Donald Erb Concerto with Leonard Slatkin and the Saint Louis Symphony Orchestra (New World). Together with Itzhak Perlman and Vladimir Ashkenazy, Harrell was awarded two Grammy Awards - in 1981 for the Tchaikovsky Piano Trio and in 1987 for the complete L.v. Beethoven Piano Trios (both Angel/EMI). A recording of the Schubert Trios with Vladimir Ashkenazy and Pinchas Zukerman (London/Decca) was released in February 2000. His May 2000 recording with Nigel Kennedy, “Duos for Violin & Cello,” received unanimous critical acclaim (EMI). Most recently, Harrell recorded Tchaikovsky’s Variations for Cello and Orchestra on a Rococo Theme, Dmitri Shostakovich’s Cello Concerto No. 2, and Prokofiev’s Sinfonia Concertante with the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra, Gerard Schwarz conducting (Classico).

Harrell previously played a 1720 Montagnana cello, and also a 1673 Antonio Stradivarius cello that belonged to the late British cellist Jacqueline du Pré. His current instrument is a 2008 cello by Christopher Dungey.

His awards and recognitions include: Piatigorsky Award; Ford Foundation Concert Artists' Award; The inaugural Avery Fisher Prize (jointly with Murray Perahia); Grammy Awards for Best Chamber Music Performance: Vladimir Ashkenazy, Lynn Harrell & Itzhak Perlman for L.v. Beethoven: The Complete Piano Trios (1988) and Vladimir Ashkenazy, Lynn Harrell & Itzhak Perlman for Tchaikovsky Piano Trio in A minor (1982). In 2001, the Dallas Symphony Orchestra established the Lynn Harrell Concerto Competition in his honor. The competition's mission is to identify and encourage the highest level of young musical talent in the South Central United States. The competition is open to string players and pianists, aged 18 and under, from Texas, New Mexico, Oklahoma, Arkansas, and Louisiana.

His wife is the violinist Helen Nightengale. They have two children, Hanna and Noah. He has twin children from his first marriage to the journalist and writer Linda Blandford-Kate, an actress and yoga teacher, and Eben, a journalist, both of whom live and work in London. He makes his home in Santa Monica, California.

--  Names which are links in this box and below refer to my interviews elsewhere on my website.  BD  

Lynn Harrell has been a frequent guest with the Chicago Symphony, both downtown during the regular season beginning in 1976, and at the Ravinia Festival in the summers beginning in 1966.  Among the concerted works he has played are pieces by Boccherini, Tchaikovsky, Elgar, Shostakovich, Saint-Saëns, Lutosłowski, Milhaud,
Dvořák, Schumann, Prokofiev, Haydn, Strauss, Bloch, plus the Brahms Double and Beethoven Triple.  Conductors included Kiril Kondrashin, Varugian Kojian, Sir Georg Solti, William Eddins, Pinchas Zukerman, Sir Mark Elder (downtown), Lukas Foss, James Levine, James Conlon, Adam Fischer, Carlo Rizzi, Marin Alsop, Andrew Litton, and Itzhak Perlman (at Ravinia).  That most recent concert, in August of 2016, marked the 50th anniversary of his debut there.

harrell In March of 1988, Harrell returned to downtown Chicago for Tout un monde lointain... [A whole distant world...] by Henri Dutilleux, conducted by Herbert Blomstedt.  We met during the afternoon before the first of four subscription performances, and some of the conversation centered on this particular work.

As we were setting up, he remarked about greeting some of his former students . . . . . . . .

Lynn Harrell:   Some of my family of former students are in the orchestra!  

Bruce Duffie:   Does it do your heart good to be a member of an orchestral section, then be the soloist, and finally go to other orchestras and find your students in important positions?

LH:   Oh, yes, very.  I’m very excited about it.   I told John [Sharp, principal cello of the Chicago Symphony] that I brag all over the world that I’ve got four students in the Chicago Symphony.  It’s wonderful.  The cello is an instrument that functions within a large ensemble, like an orchestra, or in opera.  It functions in many ways.  It has sometimes a solo line, it has sometimes the inner voice, and sometimes it has the bass line that makes the character development of a cellist more outgoing, and receptive to the idea of making music with others.  So, cellists are really a very jolly, happy lot.  They like to make music with other people.

BD:   As the soloist, do you prepare differently when you have new or recent piece, like tonight, as opposed to something from the standard repertoire?

LH:   Yes, because this piece by Dutilleux is very complex rhythmically, and doesn’t really have any classically-structured rhythms in it at all.  We have to wait for a good twenty minutes before we hear [sings a dotted rhythm].  That’s the first time that we hear anything that is a classically-structured rhythm, so the rhythm of the piece is very illusive and central.  The harmony and the instrumentation is such that the phrase lengths and its own world of structure is definitely there, and very powerful.

BD:   These are all things that the composer has written into the score.   Is it your responsibility to discover all of these things, and bring them out?

LH:   Yes.  There are a certain number of them you just discover by analyzing the piece, but he’s left an incredibly detailed road map on how to play.  Some rubatos are not written in the normal way of ‘play expressively’, or espressivo, meaning to put your heart on your sleeve.  He marks very clearly to play this note a little longer than that note, or a little longer than the other note.

BD:   Is he right?

LH:   He’s right.  I’m reminded of the Verdi letter where he says, 
No, no, no, no, no, no, six no’s.  I have never met any singer who has created a role.  There is only one creator, and the best singers in the world haven’t ever brought out all the effects that I intended in the first place, much less discovered something new.

BD:   Of course, this was a hundred years ago.  Have musicians, singers and instrumentalists, not progressed at all in a hundred years to discover these things, and really work more with the composer rather than just being led?

LH:   That was a strong diatribe by Verdi.  A great composer, such as Dutilleux, recognizes that this piece, for instance, which he thinks is his masterpiece, as having a life of its own by the players who play it, and we probably are bringing out things that he, at one point, was aware of.  But the juxtaposition of the importance of what is being brought out and emphasized is a different color kaleidoscope, and he likes that, as any composer should, because it’s a testament to another human being able to sense what the meaning is behind the creator’s invention.

BD:   When you’re playing this piece, or any piece, how much is the composer, and how much is Lynn Harrell?

LH:   I feel very free in this piece because as much as I invent, I’m only getting a little bit out of what is really there by Dutilleux.  For me, it’s like playing Beethoven or Brahms.  It’s just got so much in it to be brought out and to be expressed, and a lot of that expression, of course, based on Baudelaire’s poetry, is drug-induced and rather weird and crazy, and it affects me.  I can’t let go of this piece for weeks after I play it.

BD:   [Facetiously]  Should the audience come stoned?  [Much laughter from both]

LH:   The effect of the piece is very strong on an audience, even though they don’t know where the different movements start on first listening.  Therefore, they can’t tell if this is poison seeping from the green eyes of this mistress, or the crazy man ranting about his poetry, or two lovers burning in the embers.  These are quotes from the poetry that are the titles to each movement, but the listeners are not able to discern that.  I often thought that maybe we should make supertitles so that the audience would be able to tell when these different sections started, but obviously he doesn’t want these to be thought about that way.  It’s just in a big arch.

BD:   Is it right, though, to have these specific pictures rather than a piece of absolute music where you create your own pictures in the mind of the performer and the listener?

harrell LH:   It perhaps is true that Dutilleux wants the piece just to stand on its own, but as to the inspiration, definitely.  He said himself, and has written, that over a period of four or five years he just became infected with the essential world of Baudelaire’s poetry, and this piece took ten years to write.

BD:   Do you, as a cellist, take years and years to become infected with the world of each piece that you play?

LH:   Oh, I think so!  You have to add up all the years that you heard it when you were very, very young.  I certainly didn’t play Brahms’ Trios when I was eight, nine, ten years old, but I must have heard them.  I certainly heard Brahms a great deal, so by the time you get to be thirty or forty, a tremendous amount of absorption has taken place.  But with a piece like this Dutilleux, you’ve got to start from square one, so that the time required to really learn it thoroughly and to get into its individual world is extreme.  It takes a long time.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:   You play quite a number of new works.  Is there enough literature for the cello?   A lot of cellists complain that there isn’t literature as there is for the violin or the piano.

LH:   Yes, there is certainly little literature from a hundred years ago or earlier, but from Rostropovich’s commissioning new works we have an incredible repertoire now since 1950.  It’s just extraordinary, and it’s not only Rostropovich.  Contemporary composers are interested in the instrument because it has such a huge range.  It presents really old problems for composition, and yet it is a very expressive instrument, and its day has arrived where the solo cello is considered right along with the violin and the piano.  We don’t have the wealth of repertoire from the Romantic and Classical periods, particularly the Classical, but we’ve made up for it in the contemporary literature where we have a lot.

BD:   What advice do you have for composers who want to write for the cello, either as a solo or an ensemble instrument?

LH:   First and foremost, they need to know that the cello is not a loud instrument.  It has to be orchestrated, or scored, in such a way as to be very transparent.  They should use half the instruments that they think would be the maximum.  It is very, very delicate.  I can be drowned out immediately by an orchestral sound.

BD:   Do you then have to work carefully with the conductor to make sure that the orchestra doesn’t overpower you?

LH:   Yes, especially in a few pieces like this Dutilleux, and the Shostakovich concertos.  They sound really big and ferocious, and the orchestra plays by itself very rarely.  So it’s all together, but you always can hear the cello.  That’s the great expertise of a great master of instrumentation and orchestration at work.  Sometimes the conductor has to tell them to be quiet.  When I play the Brahms Double Concerto, for instance, or the bigger Beethoven Triple Concerto, or the Dvořák Concerto, these are pieces that invariably a number of times in the rehearsal sequence the soloist has to confer with the conductor, and the conductor has to tell the orchestra,
It’s too loud, folks.  The cello cannot be heard.”  That’s just the nature of the instrument, coupled sometimes with inexact tools of orchestration.

BD:   This is a question I usually ask singers, but I want to ask you about it.  Do you change your technique at all if you’re in a small intimate hall, or a great big hall?

LH:   I suppose I do somewhat, but it’s more subconscious than conscious.  I know that the very subtlest innuendo of expression will be heard in a small place, and I rejoice and relish in that.  On the other hand, a large space gives a tremendous panache, a larger view of the work, but I don’t think I change the way I perform.  Perhaps I scale back the energy output, the electrical energy that I muster for the communication of the piece in a small room, which otherwise is just little bit too much, really.

BD:   Do you find yourself being more subtle?

LH:   Oh, yes, definitely, because I know the subtleties will be heard.  But sometimes, in certain big pieces, you can play those subtleties, too.  When there’s absolutely nothing going on except maybe a cymbal roll, the listener gets down to listening so carefully and quietly.  It’s almost like just playing totally alone, and in a large space it has an excitement of its own.  It’s like a little child’s voice alone in the wilderness.  It’s more exciting than just being in a room.  That
’s one of the things I love about this Dutilleux.

  Are you aware of the audience thats in front of you each night?

LH:   Yes, particularly in America.  In Europe, most of the time they make halls very dark, so you look out and see exit signs.  But here the lights are on, so you can see people’s faces.

BD:   It that better, or worse, or just different?

LH:   It’s different.  Most of the time, for me it’s better because the cello is about the only instrument where we really face the audience.  Singers also face out, but pianists and violinists all face sideways.  We can see the audience’s reaction, and generally it challenges me and helps me.  However, I don’t like it when I see someone falling asleep after I’ve been playing only for about four minutes!  [Both laugh]

BD:   Hopefully that doesn’t happen very often...

LH:   No, it doesn’t.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:   We talked about playing in different halls.  Do you play the same for the microphone as you do in the live concert?

harrell LH:   No, I play much better in live concerts than I have for the microphone.  For my orchestra training with George Szell, and my musical discipline training, I knew what I was about as a musician, and what I needed to do for each performance to bring the facets of intrinsic musicality out of a work.  That was my training, so, as a singer friend used to say,
“Wake me up at 2:30 in the morning and I could sing Rigoletto for you in a drunken stupor.  [Both laugh]  I believe that up to only a certain point.  I know, for myself, that I come alive and I play much more dynamically, expressively, powerfully, and perhaps not quite as accurately, but more meaningfully in a live concert.  There’s something about having to do it over and over again to make it acceptable and perfect that angers me about recording.  If you’re going to try to make music and you’re slightly angry, it’s not a good situation to be in.

BD:   I assume, though, that you don’t disown your records.

LH:   No...  No, I don’t.

BD:    That’s a very reluctant

LH:   Well, I’ve never really liked any record I’ve made.  Maybe for the first week or so after I get the record, I listen to it and I enjoy it.   But then...

BD:   It seems that no performer likes their records.  They always feel they can do better tomorrow.

LH:   Yes, exactly.  It’s like looking in the mirror.

BD:   What do you say when someone comes up to you and says, 
“Oh, this record is wonderful”?

LH:   I’m glad they think it’s wonderful!  I’m very pleased!  Recording is a wonderful way of documenting where a musician is in his creative life, and now the sound reproduction is at such a wonderful level, but the actual performances are more communicative than on recordings.

BD:   Is there such a thing as a perfect performance?

LH:   I don’t think so.  When I was young, I used to think that if I could just get it really perfect I would be happy.  I subsequently realized that it’s impossible, because the only way to get it perfect is to have a concept that is beyond what you can achieve.  So, you’re struggling for that, and that’s constantly growing every day that you live.  But even if it were possible, that’s not where the satisfaction lies.  The satisfaction lies in the fun to try to achieve that perfection.  Any kind of arrival is just a fantasy.  It’s never an arrival.  In fact, I’ve often said to my students that as soon as you think that you’ve really arrived as a musician, as an instrumentalist, look carefully.  You’ll find that you are deteriorating because it’s either one or the other, but it’s never steady.  It’s just like staying the same age or keeping the same personality.  Each moment that we live, we’re developing, and if we don’t, we’re dying.

BD:   So you always want to develop?

LH:   Yes.  It’s a natural human phenomenal.  Children want to learn to walk because they see other people walking.  It isn’t because they’re told they’ll really enjoy life a lot better and be able to do more.  Their curiosity will lead them to want to discover new things.  That’s a natural human trait.

BD:   Are we still getting this curiosity about great music?

LH:   I think so.  It takes a lot of work, and sometimes the person goes to a concert and doesn’t want to put in the effort.  He just wants to music to wash over him.  But when music washes over him, like a Brahms symphony can, he’s not getting nearly as much out of the Brahms symphony as if he reaches out and actively tries to participate emotionally and intellectually in the experience.  That is also what he or she should try to do with contemporary music.  The trouble is that a lot of contemporary music is not very good.

BD:   How do you sort out the good from the bad
or is that your responsibility as the artist to sort it out?

LH:   It’s party the artist’s responsibility to play music that is good, and not to play music that is not good.

BD:   Okay.  What is it that makes music

LH:   [With a big smile]  Oooooh!  This is very complicated.  It has to do with inner, very profound interrelations and structures that inter-connect and have meaning, and are viable, and are things of beauty and of interest.  It is the opposite of bland.  It has complexity, and I don’t mean complexity just because it’s like mathematical problems, I mean emotional complexity.  There are certain pieces of Schubert, for instance, that are very, very simple, or the Brahms Lullaby is very simple.

BD:   And yet they’re profound in that simplicity.

LH:   Yes.  There was a wonderful diatribe letter that Schoenberg wrote to a critic when he complained that new music in the teens was just cacophony and uninteresting, and why couldn’t a composer write something so easily and effortlessly as Schumann’s Traumerei?  Whereupon, Schoenberg wrote an analysis of the Traumerei, and it’s about three pages long for a two-minute piano piece, and it shows that even these very simple pieces in certain respects are very carefully and delicately and beautifully organized.  It’s like looking at Michelangelo, or some drawings of Da Vinci.  It excites you, it pleases you because that is in the realm of a composer or an artist.  He understands better, or feels it, and knows how to achieve it.  For me, as a recreative artist, it’s still a kind of a mystery, but it’s less of a mystery for me than just the concert-goer.

harrell BD:   Yet it touches each person differently.

LH:   Yes, and the emotion of different pieces of different composers is different.  We can cry listening to Tchaikovsky, but we can also cry listening to a Bach Fugue.  The tears and the sentiment and the feelings are completely different, but that moves us, and that’s what’s so rejuvenating and fascinating.

BD:   Since you bring up Bach, you play the Suites.  Is it special that it’s all you?  There’s no pianist, there’s no orchestra, there’s nothing else.  It’s just you, in your hands and your mind.

LH:    Oh, yes, that’s very, very special, but an incredible challenge.  With just with the cello sonority, mostly one note at a time, the onus is on the performer to bring out and make the music live as much as there.  This is very, very difficult.

BD:   Is it daunting to know that these are masterpieces?

LH:   Yes.

BD:   Then is it completely different when you’re working on a new piece and you don’t know if it’s a masterpiece yet?

LH:   Yes, that’s a completely different feeling.  When you’re learning a new piece, you are just trudging through, getting more and more information about the meaning of the piece, and how it opens up and develops.  But when you start discover these things that have feeling and make it very interesting, and you start to sense that this is a great work, then it’s very exciting.

BD:   Then let me ask the real easy question.  What is the purpose of music?

LH:   [Matter of factly]  Communication.

BD:   Just that?

LH:   It’s just that, yes.  It’s the human soul reaching out through a medium other than the speaking voice, using other than his facial expressions, and through what you see of the person who is in front of you.  It is a medium that is so different, and yet the crying need is human contact, and expression, and portraying your feeling, and wanting it to be accepted by somebody else
and vice versa, opening up to them, and accepting them and their expression and personality.  The need is to put down on paperwhether it be a drawing, or a piece of musicwhatever your feeling and talent reflects in the subject matter of what you’ve done.  It was just as important to Shakespeare to write Richard IIIwhich is a very, very evil playas it was Romeo and Juliet, or A Midsummer Night’s Dream, which is just such an elfin and delightful kind of champagne play.

BD:   These are all facets of Shakespeare?

LH:   Yes.

BD:   Do you find when you play several pieces by the same composer that they’re different facets of the same composer?

LH:   Yes, definitely.  It’s a way of getting more deeply into their musical personality and musical minds.  As a musician, when I listen some Schubert pieces or some Beethoven pieces, I sense so vividly that I know this person who wrote this music!  It is as if they are suddenly alive before me, very deep because of their music.  They’re exactly the way that we all think they would be.

BD:   I have a feeling that they would be very disappointing if you saw them in person because you see into them rather than at them.

LH:   Yes, yes, absolutely.

*     *     *     *     *

harrell BD:   When you’re playing the cello, are you the playing an instrument, or do you become that instrumentor does it become part of you?

LH:   My best performances are when the instrument is just part of me, when I’m still utilizing the mechanics of the box, the wood and the bow, and using my fingering to make the sounds come out.  That’s just a barrier, a sort of stop-gap between what’s inside me and what I want to communicate when I feel what the music is trying to say.  But when the instrument becomes me
and it does sometimesthen I’m not concerned about anything about the instrument at all.  I’m just concerned only about the music, the working with my colleagues, completing the process, the teamwork, and the audience’s ongoing emotional responsean acceptance or non-acceptance of what’s going to happen.

BD:   Tell me about your instrument.

LH:   I have two but the one I use here in Chicago is by Domenico Montagnana (1686-1750).   He didn’t make very great violins, but his cellos, even back in the turn of the eighteenth century, were highly reputed.  Maybe he studied with Stradivari, but he lived in Venice.  The varnish is much harder than Stradivari’s varnish.  Stradivari lived in the dry, mountainous area of Cremona.  If Montagnana had varnished the cellos with a softer varnish, they still wouldn’t be dry today because it was such a wet environment in Venice.  That’s partly the reason it is a little bit brighter and has more punch because it has a harder varnish.  I also have a Strad that I bought from Jacqueline du Pré.  I named it after her, and it’s from 1673, which is very early for Strads.  The Montagnana is 1720.

BD:   Does it hold up well, even for music written today?

LH:   Yes, oh, absolutely.  I joke a bit, saying it’s like a ’48 Ford, really made darn well.  They were not made for obsolescence, but made to last for hundreds of years.  Stradivari was looking at instruments that were already hundreds of years old when he was a young man working, so that’s what they did.  They made them to last!
[At this point we stopped for a moment.  I asked him to read a Station Break for the radio, and also checked on his birth date.]
LH:   Yes, January 30th, 1944.  Are you into the stars?

BD:   No, but I do programs for my guests on round birthdays.  It’s an easy sorting measure for me.

LH:   I see.  I gave once to someone who was interested in that sort of thing my birth date.  She even asked the time of the day, and I told her it was 5:20 in the afternoon.

BD:   Oh, she did your chart?

LH:   She did a real chart.  It was nine pages or something.

BD:   Was it right?

LH:   It was quite extraordinary!  Quite amazing!

BD:   Are you at the point in your career that you want to be at this age?

LH:   [Thinks a moment]  Yes!  I really am doing what I love to do, and what I want to do.  I’d like to be more wealthy.  I’d like to be more well known, but these are fantasies... because I’m sure if you are multi-millionaire there are certain yachts, or other things you can afford.  Maybe there are certain things Bill Gates can afford...  But it’s that way about fame, and for a classical musician, the ultimate kind of fame is like a Madonna, or a James Bond, where you have no privacy whatsoever, ever.  All classical musicians want to be more famous, but where do they draw the line?

BD:   They want to go right up to it, and not cross it!

LH:   That’s right [bursts out laughing] which is a fantasy!  The important thing is to be able to do what you love to do, to be loved and respected and admired for that ability, and to have the chance to work.  I’m very happy because I have the chance to work, and it’s very gratifying.

harrell BD:   One last question, if I may.  Tell me about your father.

LH:   Unfortunately, I didn’t really know him that well, and that circle I have changed with my son.  I’m his best friend, and I wasn’t my father’s best friend.  We took up golf together.   He played his cello a little bit, but he hasn’t played now for a few years.  It’s just that I made a special effort because it was in the genes for me to do it the way my father did, which was to not reach out and make the effort to make emotional contact.

BD:   Did it surprise your father to learn that his son was also going to be a superb musician?

LH:   Yes, it did, and he did know before he died.  He died when I was 15.  Many years later, someone recounted the fact that he had said to them,
I think my son’s going to be a great cellist.  It moved me very deeply because I felt that I hadn’t had time to show my father that I was wanting to go in his footsteps.  Maybe I felt guilty, but then someone told me that it’s a two-way street.  He could have brought his music to me, and that’s true.  So, I brought my music to my children.  But in any case, my father was a great musician and a great singer, and I learned an immense amount from him, but most of it post mortem, unfortunately.

BD:   You got a lot of it through his recordings?

LH:   Yes.  I very carefully studied all the tapes and recordings I could get my hands on
copying the phrasing.  But I never had one conversation with him about anything to do with performing, whether it be music or anything else, and that’s such a pity.  But I’ve had teenage children too, and sometimes they’re not so easy to communicate to.  [Both laugh]

BD:   But you lost him fairly early if you were just fifteen.  If he was alive when you were thirty or forty, it would be a different thing.

LH:   Yes, and in time I would have gone through that battle of wanting my own individuality, and the parent having to withdraw, and then, hopefully, come back together again just by nature.  But I never had those things, so I was just left with realizing after he died that he was such a great musician and such a great artist, and that it had this wonderful effect on me.  It also had its problematic effects, too.

BD:   Sure, you take the good with the bad.

LH:   Yes, but everybody’s life is full of these things, aren’t they?

BD:   Of course, absolutely.  I’m glad you’ve made the most of the good.

LH:   Thank you.

BD:   Thank you for coming back to Chicago.

LH:   It’s great to be here.


See my interview with Bernard Haitink

© 1998 Bruce Duffie

This conversation was recorded in Chicago on March 5, 1998.  Portions were broadcast on WNIB the following year, and on WNUR in 2004, and 2010.  This transcription was made in 2018, and posted on this website at that time.  My thanks to British soprano Una Barry for her help in preparing this website presentation.

To see a full list (with links) of interviews which have been transcribed and posted on this website, click here.

Award - winning broadcaster Bruce Duffie was with WNIB, Classical 97 in Chicago from 1975 until its final moment as a classical station in February of 2001.  His interviews have also appeared in various magazines and journals since 1980, and he now continues his broadcast series on WNUR-FM.

You are invited to visit his website for more information about his work, including selected transcripts of other interviews, plus a full list of his guests.  He would also like to call your attention to the photos and information about his grandfather, who was a pioneer in the automotive field more than a century ago.  You may also send him E-Mail with comments, questions and suggestions.