Over drinks, Lynn Harrell could keep a person of even average curiosity entertained. The cellist and two-time Grammy winner can regale about his travels, drop a few of the household names he’s played with, drop the Pope’s name.
Over dinner, Harrell, 74, might shift gears, maybe talk religion (he changed his), hucksters in the art world (he hates them), or famous conductors, including the now-embattled James Levine of the Metropolitan Opera, a major musical influence (although Harrell recently told the Boston Globe about a group of devotees, or "Levinites," who met frequently at Levine’s home and engaged in sex acts at his behest).
Harrell solos with the Florida Orchestra in this weekend, playing Haydn’s Cello Concerto No. 1 and Max Bruch’s Kol Nidre. He’ll also conduct the concert, which includes Mozart’s Eine Kleine Nachtmusik and Schubert’s Symphony No. 5.
He’s brimming with stories gleaned from a lifetime in music’s upper echelons. Here are five things that make Harrell a fascinating conversationalist.
He’s a movie star
Harrell stars in Cello, a 20-minute film about a famous cellist facing ALS that is winning awards on the festival circuit. He weighs his options, including playing Edward Elgar’s Cello Concerto in a farewell concert and assisted suicide and deciding to do both.
"He wants to be in charge," Harrell says. "He wants to say, ‘I’ve suffered enough and I want to end my life.’?"
A big backer of California’s End of Life Option Act, Harrell says he’s won five awards for best actor already, despite never having acted before.
He converted to Judaism
Harrell was born in the New York area, the son of baritone Mack Harrell, who sang for 18 years at the Met. He grew up Methodist but it never really sunk in. After more than 40 years of reflection, in 2011 he converted to Reform Judaism.
"I realized that in my heart and in my soul, I have always been a Jew," he says. "My empathy scale is high. Also I don’t really believe in the Christian doctrine or the Mormon doctrine. All of my girlfriends and two wives and friends were Jewish, even as a child. So I just came to realize that this would be completing what is already functioning in my life."
Another influence was his cello teacher, Lev Aronson, who had spent five years in concentration camps during World War II. Once, Aronson surprised him by revealing that he had kept his uniform, and that is was made out paper.
"He said, ‘Do you want to see it?’ And he showed me, and it was really tightly woven strands of paper."
Delta stripped his frequent flier miles
By 2012, Harrell had accumulated more than 500,000 miles on Delta’s SkyMiles program, many of them because he always paid for an extra seat to stash his expensive cello. Delta set him straight in a brusque letter in 2012. Citing a prior warning 11 years earlier, Delta kicked Harrell out of SkyMiles altogether. That meant he lost all of his miles, including the ones for his own seat. The company also said he could never re-enter the program. The Colbert Report made Harrell the star of a mockumentary about the incident, calling the cellist "our country’s greatest threat."
He wants to solve world poverty
In 2002 Harrell married violinist Helen Nightengale, a former student. Several years ago, a friend in their synagogue mentioned a mission trip to Nepal.
"We had read a New York Times article about that said there were 5 million people under the age of 17 who were either orphaned or grew up in a war zone or extreme poverty," he says. "So we went to Nepal to play classical music and folk music of the Nepalese because it’s transformative. We know that music can put a smile on your face no matter what your conditions are. Our friend told us, ‘You’ll never see such poverty as this. But you’ll also very rarely see people who are so happy.’ And that was true."
The couple have a foundation, HEARTbeats, which they would like to use to address poverty in the Los Angeles area, Harrell says.
After 50 years, he sold his cello
He was a teenager in 1962 when he came across the cello that would become his constant companion. He fell in love with the wood, the tonal properties of the Montagnana, made in 1720. But he couldn’t quite come up with the $25,000 price tag. A $2,000 loan from the Cleveland Orchestra got him over the hump, and Harrell and "Monty" were a pair ever since. In 2013, he decided to sell the instrument, which was by then worth an estimated $3 to $5 million.
"I’d had it 50 years and thought I could use the money," he says. The instrument finally sold a few months ago. The terms of the agreement meant he could not know the final price or who bought it. But it was enough to buy a house and an adjacent studio. Harrell now plays an American instrument made in 2008 by Christopher Dungey. It’s just as good, he says.
Did his famous name help boost Monty’s price? It didn’t hurt, Harrell acknowledges with a chuckle.
"Capital gains tax," he says.
Contact Andrew Meacham at [email protected] or (727) 892-2248. Follow @torch437.