For an incredible fifty years, the ever-youthful Lynn Harrell has been one of America’s shining stars in international concertdom. He’s done the major record labels, the dream team chamber groups (with Vladimir Ashkenazy, James Levine (at the piano), Itzhak Perlman, Anne-Sophie Mutter, Pinchas Zukerman etc.). He’s had a music festival named after him, Grammy awards; he’s recorded all the cello repertoire with top orchestras—in short, he has nothing to prove and seems to be having the time of his life.
Hear Songs My Father Taught Me, January 31st at 10:00 PM.
Happy 70th, Lynn!
WFMT dedicates the month of January to the cello in recognition of Lynn Harrell’s artistry. He has moved us through his recordings, studio performances, his many concerts in Chicago; and has been a generous colleague, always up for an interesting project—the most compelling of which is Songs My Father Taught Me, a radio show about musical discovery through the recordings of his late father, baritone Mack Harrell.
One of the many delights of cello month has been the range of responses to questions about the cello. Today we present responses by Lynn Harrell:
How old were you when you started to play? Why did you choose the cello? What made you decide to become a musician?
I was eight years old. I chose the cello because I liked that it was big, and I didn’t like the piano, which my parents wanted me to practice. I fell in love with classical music
Can you name a piece or two of core repertoire that requires extra prep time? What specifically makes it challenging for players?
The Shostakovich Concerto Number Two requires extra prep. Schubert Arpeggione Sonata also requires extra prep. Both pieces require great stamina, both physical and emotional.
Do you have a maintenance schedule for the cello? What has to be done to keep it in top working order? Is the instrument sensitive to conditions and how do you adjust?
I do not have a maintenance schedule for my cello. To keep it in top working order, strings have to be fresh, the bridge must be the correct height, the hair on the bow must be fresh, and all the seams must be closed on the cello. The cello is sensitive to conditions and I adjust by taking extra bridges of different heights, because the instrument expands in humidity. It also contracts in dryness.
What’s your favorite cello recording? Why?
Casals the six cello Suites of Bach are my favorite. They are my favorite because, I was 17 when I played for him some Bach, and it has remained with me my entire life.
If you could go back in time to advise composers about the cello, who would you talk to, and what would you suggest?
I would talk to Mozart; I would suggest that he should write for the cello. He wrote for every single other instrument, even the glass harmonica – and would you believe the double bass – but not the cello.
How do you teach fingerings to young cellists? What is it about the instrument’s design that makes fingerings so tricky to players?
I teach fingerings for the structure of the hand for all positions, then I teach the shifting from position to position. The intricacies of intonation deals with speed of play, this should be taught early on. The bouts make the upper positions more difficult to reach, the force of depressing the string is much greater than the violin, and therefore to shift much greater distances makes it physically much more challenging.
When two cellists get together, what are some of the peculiarities of the instrument that they talk about? Do you have any funny stories?
When I play with another cellist we like to compare our instruments and bows, and we discuss strings, and the choices we have today, seemingly much more than violinists do. No funny stories that I can think of.
Do you find playing the cello gets easier, and that you can practice less? Is there a piece of music you play that helps you keep up your technique?
I find the cello a great deal easier than in my developmental stages. I don’t need to practice nearly as much as I did because my style has solidified and I know where the difficult spots really are. Yes there are specific pieces of music I play that help me keep up technique. They are Prokofiev Sinfonia Concertante, and for tone and color, Bloch “Schelomo”.