The American cellist, Lynn Harrell, was born to musician parents: his father was the baritone Mack Harrell and his mother, Marjorie McAlister Fulton (1909-1962), was a violinist. At the age of 8, he decided to learn to play the cello, taking initial lessons with Heinrich Joachim of the New York Philharmonic Orchestra. When he was 12, his family moved to Dallas, Texas, where he studied with excellent teacher in Lev Aronson (1912-1988), the first to recognize his talent. Harrell says that Aronson "showed me passion, for the instrument, for music and for life." After attending Denton High School, Harrell studied at the Juilliard School in New York, studying with the renowned Leonard Rose. Harrell then went to the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia for further studies with Orlando Cole, who recommended that he join an orchestra as preparation for his desired solo career. He made his debut in 1961 playing with the New York Philharmonic Orchestra at Carnegie Hall.
When Lynn Harrell was 15 years, 11 months old (1960), his father died of cancer. When Harrell was 18 years, 9 months (November 1962), his mother, while on the faculty as violinist in residence at the University of North Texas College of Music, died from injuries sustained from a two-vehicle crash while traveling from Denton to Fort Worth with pianist Jean Mainous to perform a recital. Just before his mother had died, in April 1962, Harrell had withdrawn from Denton High School in his junior year to advance to the semifinals of the Second International Tchaikovsky Competition competition in Moscow.
Lynn Harrell consulted with his godfather, Robert Shaw. At the time Robert Shaw was the choral director of the Cleveland Orchestra under conductor Georg Szell. Shaw arranged an audition for Harrell, who, at the age of 18, won a spot in the orchestra. "After losing his mother," as Harrell put it, "I moved around to different family friends' houses with my one suitcase and cello until [after] I was 18, when I joined the Cleveland Orchestra. In part, I got that job because [its conductor] George Szell knew my father through their collaboration at the Metropolitan Opera." Harrell was a cellist with the Cleveland Orchestra and its principal cellist from 1964 to 1971.
Lynn Harrell's years at Cleveland yielded a lifelong friendship with the orchestra's associate conductor, James Levine. James Levine helped acquaint Harrell with a wide range of repertoire, particularly the music of the post-World War II era. 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 cello parts of the orchestral pieces he 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 a solo career to follow his lead and first play in an orchestra or chamber ensemble. When Szell passed away, Harrell was 27 and felt he was ready to pursue his solo career, so he left the Cleveland Orchestra.
Lynn Harrell made his recital debut in New York in 1971, For his first engagement in New York, the initial audience turnout was dismal. He subsisted on a small number of concerts, and managed to attract the attention of savvy New York impresarios. 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 build and in 1975 it reached a decisive turning point when he won the prestigious Avery Fisher Prize, launching his solo career into the international limelight.
Subsequently, Lynn Harrell has become known as one of the world's finest cellists, performing internationally as a recitalist, chamber musician, and soloist with leading orchestras and ensembles. His presence is felt throughout the musical world. A consummate soloist, chamber musician, recitalist, conductor and teacher, his work throughout the Americas, Europe and Asia has placed him in the highest echelon of today’s performing artists.
Lynn Harrell is a frequent guest of many leading orchestras including the Boston Symphony Orchestra, Chicago Symphony Orchestra, New York Philharmonic Orchestra, Philadelphia Orchestra, San Francisco Symphony Orchestra, Ottawa Symphony Orchestra, Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra, and the National Symphony Orchestra (Washington, DC). In Europe he partners with the orchestras of London, Munich, Berlin, Tonhalle and Israel. He has also toured extensively to Australia and New Zealand as well as the Far East, including Japan, Korea, Malaysia, Taiwan and Hong Kong. In the summer of 1999 Harrell was featured in a three-week “Lynn Harrell Cello Festival” with the Hong Kong Philharmonic. He regularly collaborates with such noted conductors as James Levine, Sir Neville Marriner, Kurt Masur, Zubin Mehta, André Previn, Sir Simon Rattle, Leonard Slatkin, Yuri Temirkanov, Michael Tilson Thomas and David Zinman.
Among Lynn Harrell’s chamber music partners are pianists Vladimir Ashkenazy, Michel Béroff, Bruno Canino, Stephen Kovacevich, Robert Levin and Konstantin Lifschitz; violinists Nigel Kennedy, Anne-Sophie Mutter, Itzhak Perlman; clarinetist Richard Stoltzman, and others.
An important part of Lynn Harrell’s life is summer music festivals, which include appearances at the Verbier Festival in Switzerland, the Aspen and Grand Tetons festivals, and the Amelia Island Festival. A special part of his life is the Aspen Music Festival, where he has spent his summers performing and teaching for nearly 50 years. He is the recipient of numerous awards including the Piatigorsky Award, and the Ford Foundation Concert Artists' Award.
On April 7, 1994, Lynn Harrell appeared at the Vatican with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Gilbert Levine in the Papal Concert to Commemorate the Shoah. The audience for this historic event, which was the Vatican's first official commemoration of the Holocaust, included Pope John Paul II and the Chief Rabbi of Rome. Harrell also appeared on the 1994 Grammy Awards broadcast, performing with Itzhak Perlman and Pinchas Zukerman. In recent seasons Harrell has particularly enjoyed collaborating with violinist Anne-Sophie Mutter and pianist, André Previn. In January 2004 the trio appeared with the New York Philharmonic Orchestra performing the L.v. Beethoven’s Triple Concerto with Maestro Kurt Masur conducting.
Lynn Harrell has been at several music schools and conservatories, including the Royal Academy of Music in London, the Aspen Music Festival, the Cleveland Institute of Music, and the Juilliard School. He served as the Music Director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic Institute from 1988 to 1992. From 1986 to 1993, he held the post of "Gregor Piatigorsky Endowed Chair in Violoncello" at the USC Thornton School of Music in Los Angeles; he was only the second person to ever hold the title, following Piatigorsky himself. Most recently he was on the faculty of the Shepherd School of Music at Rice University until his retirement in the spring of 2009. From 1985 to 1993 he held the International Chair for Cello Studies at the Royal Academy of Music in London and in 1993 he became Principal of the Royal Academy in London, a post he held through 1995. In June, 2010 along with his wife, violinist Helen Nightengale, he founded the HEARTbeats Foundation, a 501(c) charity. Based in Los Angeles, the HEARTbeats Foundation strives to help children in need harness the power of music to better cope with, and recover from, the extreme challenges of poverty and conflict, in hope of creating a more peaceful, sustainable world for generations to come. Mr. Harrell serves as a board officer and Artist Ambassador, a capacity that allows him to work directly with children in in need.
His extensive discography include the solo works, orchestral works, numerous premieres, and collaborations with the world's foremost artists. Highlights from an extensive discography of more than 30 recordings include the complete J.S. Bach’s Cello Suites (BWV 1007-1012) (London/Decca), the world-premiere recording of Victor Herbert’s Cello Concerto No. 1 with the Academy of St Martin-in-the-Fields led by Neville Marriner (London/Decca), the William Walton Concerto with Simon Rattle and the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra (EMI), and the Donald Erb Concerto with Leonard Slatkin and the Saint Louis Symphony Orchestra (New World). Together with Itzhak Perlman and Vladimir Ashkenazy, Harrell was awarded two Grammy Awards - in 1981 for the Tchaikovsky Piano Trio and in 1987 for the complete L.v. Beethoven Piano Trios (both Angel/EMI). A recording of the Schubert Trios with Vladimir Ashkenazy and Pinchas Zukerman (London/Decca) was released in February 2000. His May 2000 recording with Nigel Kennedy, “Duos for Violin & Cello,” received unanimous critical acclaim (EMI). Most recently, Harrell recorded Tchaikovsky’s Variations for Cello and Orchestra on a Rococo Theme, Dmitri Shostakovich’s Cello Concerto No. 2, and Prokofiev’s Sinfonia Concertante with the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra, Gerard Schwarz conducting (Classico).
Lynn Harrell previously played a 1720 Montagnana cello he bought with the proceeds of his parents' estate and also a 1673 Antonio Stradivarius cello that belonged to the late British cellist Jacqueline du Pré. His current instrument is a 2008 cello by Christopher Dungey.
His awards and recognitions include: Piatigorsky Award; Ford Foundation Concert Artists' Award; The inaugural Avery Fisher Prize (jointly with Murray Perahia); Grammy Awards for Best Chamber Music Performance: Vladimir Ashkenazy, Lynn Harrell & Itzhak Perlman for L.v. Beethoven: The Complete Piano Trios (1988) and Vladimir Ashkenazy, Lynn Harrell & Itzhak Perlman for Tchaikovsky: Piano Trio in A minor (1982). In 2001, the Dallas Symphony Orchestra established the Lynn Harrell Concerto Competition in his honor. The competition's mission is to identify and encourage the highest level of young musical talent in the South Central United States. The competition is open to string players and pianists, aged 18 and under, from Texas, New Mexico, Oklahoma, Arkansas, and Louisiana.
His wife is the violinist Helen Nightengale; they have two children, Hanna and Noah. He has twin children from his first marriage to the journalist and writer Linda Blandford-Kate, an actress and yoga teacher, and Eben, a journalist, both of whom live and work in London. He makes his home in Santa Monica, California.