Two violinists recall Lynn Harrell’s influence

Two violinists recall Lynn Harrell’s influence


norman lebrecht

April 29, 2020

Message to Slipped Disc from Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg:

Imagine you are a very young violinist…that maybe a handful of people have heard of…and Lynn Harrell agrees to play with you. Imagine the generosity of that.

My first rehearsal with him was 8:00 am. Brahms B Major Piano Trio, with Brooks Smith. I was up before the sun and honestly cannot remember another time in my entire life where I felt more excited. I don’t recall anything that happened before hearing him play that opening theme…knowing I had only seconds left before I would join him. And only seconds after that, my life would be changed forever.

Maybe I still would have had a career…possibly…probably. But I certainly would not have played the way I did for the rest of my life if not for Lynn Harrell. When you are young and just getting started, all you have are your instincts…and many, many people telling you what to do. In my case, many people telling me what not to do. I could only play what I felt… it’s all I knew… and Lynn gave me the gift of trusting that. He was my mentor and my protector, shooting down anyone who questioned what I was doing.
“Let her play”….I heard that a lot.

You cannot know when you are young, the value of that. For decades we played together…pretty much everything a cello and violin could play. Being 3 feet away from him, watching and learning and feeling everything he was doing…his sound…that sound. You could feel it in your teeth.

No I’m quite certain I would not have become the player I became without him. For better or worse (depending who you speak to) he molded me by giving me that great gift of trusting your instincts. How lucky I was to know him, to know his family, to learn from him, and to love him.


Message to Slipped Disc from Nigel Kennedy:

There was a time in my life when I was surrounded by mental midgets from record companies and such like who wanted me to grow narrowly upwards like a short-lived pine, as opposed to growing broad branches like a long-lived oak. In order to preserve my musical integrity it had been necessary to self-exile from the yoke of these ignorant people.

It was during my extended sabbatical from classical music that, out of the blue, I received a letter expressing regret at my withdrawal from the classical world and generous admiration for the way I play. The letter was from Lynn Harrell, the greatest cellist of his generation and maybe for the last hundred years. This generous outreach was typical of Lynn and lead to us recording and touring duo repertoire for cello & violin around the world.

During our work together he displayed the incredible joy of music and of life. Always growing as an artist what was even more important was the generosity, humility, honesty and openness epitomised by Lynn the man.

Thank you Lynn, for wonderful music & memories.


UPDATE: Tribute from cellist Mats Lidstrom, in response to a mean NY Times obituary:

I have read some of the obituaries. The usual, referring to Lynn as a ‘gentle giant’ or mentioning his hip and knee surgery. I have wondered ever since I met Lynn nearly forty years ago, why that seems to happen when Lynn’s name comes up. Here is a supreme force, an artist and master offering us alternative avenues, a cellist with no technical short-comings. Would we refer to hips and knees when we talk about the greatness of other artists?

Lynn personified kindness. There was no agenda, political or otherwise, brewing within. One was always met with warmth, generosity and a genuine interest. This, in combination with his tremendous energy, search for beauty and technical mastery, made his music-making a journey of unlimited choices. To strive for alternatives and perfect those alternatives, to enter new territory and reach beyond what has already been tried and presented by others many times over, made him as an open book and therefore vulnerable. For the frontier, courage is needed. And Lynn had courage. Watching him with the cello meant a thousand moments of learning. One comment from him about something he may have observed about your own playing, could explain and make sense of the world of bow speed, or the ultimate importance of a balanced left hand. Therefore his name keeps popping up in my teaching. He functions as a reference to perfection. To my mind, hi cello-playing is unique and has no equal. There are many musicians representing wonderfully intelligent and gorgeous music-making, but what I point to here, is his capability as a cellist. He worked out how to manoeuvre our big instrument with minimum effort, his used his left hand across the register with perfect economy so that it looked like he played with his fist. This type of perfected balance, like a swimmer who needs to gain hundreths of a second to increase the end result, enabled a wide and gorgeous range of vibrato and glissandos. If the great mystery, after all, is created by the right hand, Lynn possessed not only the vision of sound but also the technical ability to execute it. And so he arrived with a new sound which had never before been linked with typical string playing, a dimension of depth and transparency. To make one’s vision materialise requires, for most of us, a lifetime of work – and even if we can tell early on that this is unachievable, our duty is to continue the work. I remember a masterclass when a student had played his piece and was waiting for Lynn’s comment. In his usual friendly tone, Lynn said thank you and, ‘there was a place at the most difficult spot where you didn’t look too troubled to have messed it up. You know… that place may only be two seconds worth of music, but even if it means sixty more hours of
practise, you’ve got to do it.’
We all have people in our lives who constitute corner stones. Lynn is one for me. I first met him at the Piatigorsky Seminar in Los Angeles when I was 22 years old and I was proud that we shared the same teacher at the Juilliard School, Leonard Rose. I remember playing tennis with Lynn at the court of Mrs.Piatigorsky in Santa Monica. On the day it was time to return home, Lynn had to leave early and there was no time for goodbyes. So instead of waking me up, he had emptied an entire box of wrapped chocolate outside my door. A decade later, as the Principal of the Royal Academy of Music in London, he offered me a teaching position there, and a couple of years later he attended my wedding in Aspen, Co. Lynn and I were in the middle of recording my trio for violin and two cellos, Carnival of Venice, for the EMI label with our friend Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg.

The CD was made possible because of her. One of the recording sessions ended at 2pm, which gave me just enough time to have the worst haircut I have ever had and get changed before walking over to Aspen Chapel and get married at 4pm. In the morning Lynn had sent us a Magnum bottle of Champagne (with a small envelope containing $100 in cash!) to give us ‘a nice start of the day’.
I shall miss him, but he shall remain part of it all, too.


  • RW2013 says:

    Brahms B flat Major Piano Trio ????

    • NYMike says:

      Exactly my reaction.

    • Jerome Hoberman says:

      Baroque pitch.

    • Anon says:

      Take it easy…
      It’s just a mistake. Either Schubert or just B major.
      There is NO WAY she wouldn’t know that.

      • David K. Nelson says:

        But there is of course the piano trio version of the op. 18 sextet. Could they really have dug that up? It’s hardly ever played.

        The Nigel Kennedy/Lynn Harrell recording of the Ravel Duo is truly a fine one. slightly on the ferociously stark side.

        Slightly off topic but a musician friend who played tennis with Lynn Harrell said that “ferocious” pretty much described his tennis game, too.

  • john kelly says:

    Wonderful recollections from two musicians who certainly are never boring and always have something to say about the music they play, perhaps Lynn Harrell helped them on that journey too.

    Mr K – Aston Villa will rise again!

  • Nijinsky says:

    What Nadia describes is exactly the sad state of too many (the first being already one too many) if not most music schools and their “illustrious” teachers. Anyone with true instincts towards the music rather than some “method,” some “fashion,” some prefabricated ideology that has to emulate the doctrines of those given the position of authority (and because they get irritated that something is done differently from their holy conditioning they think they have authority), anyone with true instincts that haven’t been beaten down with indoctrinated excuses stand the chance of being treated in such a fashion. All there might be left is a row of androids, after the former humans had been groomed into thinking that that’s greatness. And it also contributes to the stuffy atmosphere around classical music that turns so many people off, as well as turns many people away from becoming a musician or getting to know classical music and discovering what the music is really about.

    • Nelson says:

      There’s room for all kinds. Just because YOU can’t see the validity of a different approach to music making doesn’t mean you have to vilify and characterize scholarship as a affront to your sensibilities. I think that your ideas have lead to much of the BS that goes for “originality” in today’s misplaced fear of merely making music. Lynn Harrell would have completely disagreed with you….HIS genius is that he could be a vivid performer who had charisma aplenty yet it was all put to the service of a deep analysis and understanding and faithfulness to his brand of rigorous discipline and self-awareness….you hear this in everything he played. I saw him impart this to students every day for half a decade. He was a great and generous spirit, and he would have found a way to bring you along for the ride through his persuasiveness. But never in a million years would he posture and accuse as you have done. Perhaps you had to be there to understand what I mean. I’m sorry you weren’t….it was a joy to behold.

  • Old Man in the Midwest says:

    Nice tributes even if some of the minor details are off.

    Love both these players and glad to know that LH was a gentleman and an inspiration to the generation that was after him.

  • Fred Wanger says:

    Oh, what’s a half step among friends

  • Simon Scott says:

    Trust Nigel to pull it off! I love what he says