Lynn Harrell's father was Mack Harrell, a popular bass-baritone of the Metropolitan Opera. His mother, Marjorie Fulton, was a professional violinist. At the age of six he studied piano but did not like the instrument. At the age of eight he decided to learn cello. He received initial lessons with Heinrich Joachim, a cellist in the New York Philharmonic. Mack Harrell retired from the Met and moved to Dallas, Texas when Lynn was 11. There Lynn found an excellent teacher, Lev Aronson, the first to recognize his talent. Lynn says that Aronson "showed me passion, for the instrument, for music, and for life."
After high school Lynn entered the Juilliard School. There he studied with one of the great cellists and teachers of the age, Leonard Rose. While Aronson had taught the straight-fingered Russian style. Rose convinced Harrell to change this to a lower positioning of the wrist. This requires more active fingers but results in a more flexible playing style.
His parents died within two years of each other. Harrell went to the Curtis Institute for further studies with Orlando Cole, who recommended that Harrell join an orchestra as preparation for his desired solo career. Cole observed that in the past many great cellists emerged from a period of orchestral training. Harrell consulted his godfather, the conductor Robert Shaw. At the time Shaw was the choral director of the Cleveland Orchestra under conductor Georg Szell. Shaw arranged an audition for Harrell, who won a seat in the orchestra. After two years, Harrell had risen to the position of principal cellist, remaining in that position for seven years.
The danger for solo-caliber string players in going into an orchestra is that they can lose their distinctiveness and edge, for unlike the wind players they ordinarily play in unison with other players, usually with no individual role. Harrell's realization that he was learning general music repertoire, a high musical standard, and stylistic correctness from one of the great conductors kept him on track for his eventual solo career. In addition, his years at Cleveland also yielded a lifelong friendship, for the associate conductor of the orchestra was the young James Levine. With a wide knowledge of the repertoire, Levine helped acquaint Harrell with the range of music and styles of the century, particularly the music of the post-World War II era, about which Szell had little interest. Levine inspired Harrell to study all aspects of his own playing style: "I ripped it apart and built it back together again," he says.
Rather than simply learning the parts of the orchestral pieces the Cleveland 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 solo careers to follow his lead and first play in an orchestra or, at least, in a chamber ensemble. He also is quick to defend that quality of orchestral players against the perceptions that orchestras are places for people not quite up to a solo career. "The orchestral musician has to be able to do everything well," he says. "He must sight-read well. He must be able to play in any number of different styles and adjust to all kinds of colleagues and conductors."
When Harrell was 27, Szell died. Harrell already felt he was about ready to pursue his solo career, so he left the Cleveland Orchestra at that time. It took just about all his savings to engage a hall in New York, and the audience turnout was dismal. He got by on a small number of concerts, but he did attract the attention of savvy New York musicians. 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 pick up. In 1975, it reached a decisive turning point when he won the prestigious Avery Fisher Prize, regarded as recognition of a player who deserves a star solo career. Since then, Harrell has become known as one of the world's finest cellists. He has a robust tone and exuberant style, not dissimilar to a Rostropovich approach, though with an American leanness rather than a Russian romantic sound. He has recorded extensively and among his recordings that he seems most fond of, he singles out the Tchaikovsky Trio he taped with Itzhak Perlman and Vladimir Ashkenazy. ~ Joseph Stevenson