The deep love between a man and his cello

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Lynn Harrell & Gerard Schwartz credit Jordan Green
Cellist Lynn Harrell (center) with conductor Gerard Schwarz (photo by Jordan Green)

by Jordan Green

In the classical world, cellist Lynn Harrell needs no introduction.

He strode onstage at Dana Auditorium on July 11 with a broad smile, receiving a greeting of excited applause from the full house, and took a seat with his instrument on a platform beside conductor Gerard Schwarz. Harrell appeared with the Eastern Festival Orchestra for the second concert in the weekly Joseph M. Bryan Jr. Festival Orchestra Series at Guilford College.

The 71-year-old Harrell is a consummate professional — isn’t that a prerequisite in classical music? — but also a performer who feels music deeply and approaches live collaboration with gusto.

A musician who has said he places as much weight on living a fulfilled life as artistic excellence, Harrell found a suitable match in Richard Strauss’ Don Quixote, Fantastic Variations on a Theme of Knightly Character. His bow at rest during the “Introduzione,” Harrell made a bravura performance out of listening. He grimaced with the emotion of a stirring movement, squinted in appreciation at a subtle articulation by one of the orchestra’s violinists, and his eyes widened in acknowledgement of a bright exposition. Pursing his lips and nodding along with the rhythm, his whiskered jowls seemed to quiver with each dramatic flare.

As the music moved into “Tema con variazioni I-X” of Strauss’ piece, Harrell graciously forayed into solos in the broad vistas carved out by orchestra. The first solo was delicate and thoughtful, the second robust and expressive. As the piece progressed in intensity, the complexity of Harrell’s playing evolved commensurately, with the musician demonstrating an ability to drop from demonstrative boldness to delicate articulation within a measure.

Representing the vainglory and idealism of Don Quixote de la Mancha, the protagonist of Don Miguel de Cervantes’ classic novel, Harrell’s solos provided a noble and serious counterpoint to the jaunty adventurousness of the orchestra’s violas, articulating the earthy mockery of sidekick Sancho Panza.

As a picaresque featuring a deluded hero, Don Quixote represents the popular culture of its day; Harrell, as a classical musician demonstrates willingness to accommodate the demands of contemporary culture. His repertoire of facial expressions leant Don Quixote an operatic flair.

Yet to popular audiences, Harrell’s greatest renown might be thanks to a 2013 segment on “People Who Are Destroying America” on “The Colbert Report,” after Delta Airlines kicked him out of its frequent flyer program. Harrell had opened an account for his cello, so he could accrue points when he purchased tickets to carry the instrument with him on flights. Framing the satirical piece around people who “demand they embrace their deviant lifestyles,” the segment features Harrell saying, “I think, of course, of a cello as being like a fellow human being. I call it a name and I think it’s alive and living and communicates about deep feelings.”

The medieval hero who tilts at windmills and the contemporary concert cellist who insists on “special rights” for his instruments are of course different animals, but what binds them is an artistic willingness to poke fun at oneself.

That kind of popular framing is a useful access point for someone who is not necessarily familiar with composers and works of classical music, or the literature on which much of the canon is based.

Take the Eastern Festival Orchestra’s rendition of Nikolay Andreyevich Rimsky-Korsakov’s Suite from Le coq d’or (The Golden Cockerel) earlier in the concert.

One need know nothing about the composer, who lived in Russia from 1844 to 1908, or the original literary work by Alexander Pushkin to appreciate Rimsky-Korsakov’s opera. The suite — quiet, soothing melody disturbed by a dark undercurrent of cellos in the first movement; light, breezy notes counterposed against a creeping riff in the second; a gracious reprieve in the third; and violins played with fury and control hinting at danger lurking around the corner in the fourth — suggest nothing so much as the score of a late 1940s black and white film noir.

Conductor Gerard Schwarz and the orchestra gave their all to the piece, and to the entire concert. Conducting with verve, Schwarz’s hands waved towards the wings, summoning strains of sounds from the musicians. And the violinists played with furiously knitted eyebrows.

The convoluted plotline of the Golden Cockerel makes it clear how this music became a precursor for 20th Century cinema: Tsar Dodon receives the cockerel from a mysterious astrologer, with the understanding that it will warn him against threats to his security; the tsar discovers the bodies of his two sons, who have each plotted to kill each other to position themselves for power, on a moonlit battlefield; the tsar falls under the spell of the beautiful Queen Shemakha (femme fatale, hello!) and marries her in a lavish ceremony; the astrologer returns to claim the bride for himself, whereupon Dodon kills him only to have the cockerel take down the tsar with a fatal peck to the jugular. The epilogue to Rimsky-Korsakov’s opera suggests that the entire story might have been an illusion all along, with only the astrologer and the queen being real. What could be more noir than that?

Similar drama attended Don Quixote with Harrell performing cello as a soloist in the second set. In the exciting finale, Harrell pursed his lips in an agonizing “oh.” With majestic sweep, Schwarz conducted like a man wading into the surf. The piece ended suddenly, and Harrell took a bow and left the stage. Clearly appreciative of each other and having fun, the musicians joined the audience’s sustained applause by waving their bows. Beaming, Harrell emerged from the wings, holding Mr. Cello aloft.