Posts for:  March 2016

The Breath of Life, Through Lynn Harrell’s Cello

Cellist extraordinaire Lynn Harrell teaching Samuel Walter in a memorable masterclass at Haverford College

Cellist Lynn Harrell plays with such ease, it’s as if the bow he holds in his right hand is a natural extension of his body.  I’ve seen only two or three other artists play with this same degree of relaxed command. In a concert and masterclass he gave last fall at Haverford College, he revealed his secrets to that physical ease, and to his approach to music.

One of the keys to his playing stems from a sense of timing tied to breath. In his playing of J.S. Bach’s Cello Suite no. 3 in C, he achieved a mixture of sonic plushness and suspense, in phrasing that was completely unpredictable, yet utterly inevitable. Listening to him play Bach is like being in conversation with a person you’ve just fallen in love with, and they’re about to tell you something fascinating and brand-new. After hearing Lynn Harrell’s Bach, I’ve decided that Bach should always be played with that kind of freedom. In the Debussy Cello Sonata that followed, in which he was admirably joined by the impressive and sensitive pianist Pauline Yang, he achieved a huge array of color and a sense of un-boxed-in release that left his audience enchanted.

Over dinner after the concert, he attributed his sense of breath and timing to his father, the great baritone Mack Harrell, who died when Lynn was only 15, but from whom he still draws inspiration. During a masterclass Lynn gave immediately afterward, he reiterated the importance of breathing, of singing, when playing an instrument, so:

“I knew that man once,” he sang, to demonstrate a phrase from the Brahms Sextet in B-flat Major, for a student group. “I KNEW that man once,” he said, emphasizing a different part of the sentence — and then, with a sense of resolution: “He was a lovely man.”

Equally important to timing is knowing how to handle sound production.

Forte does not mean loud,” he said. “It means strong. It has nothing to do with volume, but more with a feeling of effort. In fact, piano and forte dynamics are quite close together in volume, but different in texture.

Piano is soft in texture, like the fur muff that Mimi’s friend Musetta brings to her in the final act of La Bohème. ‘O, piano, piano,’ Mimi sings.

Mezzo-piano is a little more muscular. Forte-piano, fp, means a normal volume of communication. Poco forte is Brahms’ invention, and the abbreviation, pf, means full-bodied and singing. When you see pp, pianissimo, don’t play less loud necessarily, play more voluptuously and use more bow.”

“Because of the thickness of the parts in Brahms’ early writing, you have to bring out some voices and back off in others. For instance, when the second viola plays off-beats in the first movement, compact the rosin granules in the bow, play a little more detached and accentuated. It should sound like a burr or a thorn in your side, against the sweet and charming melody.

“And where there is an important melody to be heard, even if it’s marked ‘p‘, the listener needs to hear it — go to it, be a bull in a China shop.

Lynn complimented student Samuel Walter in his performance of the first movement of Dvorak’s Cello Concerto, but had plenty to offer; first, “sculpt out the strings” to give the opening statement more bite and definition, but in the lyrical second theme, “release the pressure, as if you are cuddling or petting a kitten. In virtuoso passages, be pointed rhythmically, and use an intense and faster vibrato, with feeling.

“The climax of the concerto comes on the big diminished chord — but then, be like Alfred Hitchock — don’t let ‘em go, don’t let ‘em go — then wait for a BIG silence, which makes the orchestra respond more ferociously.”

In considering Samuel’s precise nature, Lynn suggested, “Don’t be cool, calm and collected. Don’t ritardando too evenly. Have a huge variety of vibrato speeds. Be a bass singer. Then be a soprano. A singer has to manipulate his or her vocal cords for ever single note.”

In the Kodály Duo that Samuel and fellow student Dora von Trentini (violin) played, Lynn suggested, “Make it more ferocious. Feel the rhythm like a dancer, and draw back for your punch.”

Lynn gave general practice suggestions: to achieve stamina for extended big passages, “Be in that ff realm when you practice. Practice again and again and again. Change your bow grip to accommodate different tones you want. Think about thumb placement, and how far your forearm is from the hair of the bow. Sometimes more relaxed fingers on the bow is not the way to go — for instance, when you want precision in Bach.”

The secret to his playing with utter physical ease? He relaxes the upper arm, forearm, and uses the muscles of his back as if he’s playing tug-of-war. “It’s tricky sometimes because there are not as many nerve endings in the large muscle groups. It makes a difference where the energy is coming from. Have the ideal of strength, with freedom from any constriction.”

The secret to his freedom of expression? His understanding that “music represents every emotion in life, even when we’re murderously angry.”

The secret to making everything sound unpredictable and new, as if you’re having a conversation with a person you’ve just fallen in love with? “In repeated performances of a piece, if I do a passage successfully, I have to let it go. I have to make it fresh each time, and original.”

Lynn Harrell, American original, does just that. And we listeners can’t help but fall in love.