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Harrell Adds Teaching To His Repertory

August 30, 1987|DANIEL CARIAGA

What does a famous musician--a renowned soloist, the object of adulation, celebrity and respect, one at the peak of his technical powers--do when he reaches a plateau of musical and personal achievement?

"If he has any sense," says Lynn Harrell, "he pulls back."

The distinguished American cellist, in a move some might see as a classic mid-life decision, has decided to pull back. At 43, Harrell is clearly in his prime as a music maker. While he won't deny that status, the tall, sandy-haired musician also views his present professional maturity "as a resource I want to share."

This career, after all--and despite Harrell's youthful appearance--is one that goes back to 1960, when he made his debut at 16 as soloist with the New York Philharmonic. Since then, he has earned a place among the elite of international soloists in appearances with major orchestras, on major recital stages and in numerous recordings.

Intensely analytical and quietly articulate, Harrell over the years has taught briefly at a number of conservatories and in master-class situations--most recently, a month ago at the Los Angeles Philharmonic Institute.

In two weeks, however, he will assume a new job, his first major teaching post. At the University of Southern California, Harrell will occupy the Gregor Piatigorsky Chair in cello. His teaching duties will allow him to continue full-time with his concert work.

Aside from a change of life style, Harrell says he and his wife decided to move to California--and academia--to reduce his traveling.

"In the last year, I gave, all told, 130 concerts. So slowing down seems like a necessity, if only for my health. But, of course, the benefits of going from 130 down to 95--which is what I'll give between now and next August--go beyond just health.

"In the past, when I've gone out on the road, I was performing up to four times a week. Well, when you do that for three to six weeks at a stretch, it's not possible to keep fresh. Or even sometimes to remember where you are." But other needs besides fatigue must be addressed, he emphasizes.

"First, I want to have time with my family. Then, too, I require time away from performing, time in which I can reflect and add onto my repertory."

Since February, Harrell says, he has been carrying around with him the score to Kodaly's sonata for solo cello, a work he plans to learn and play. "I haven't opened it yet," he confesses.

The new teaching post will give Harrell his first chance to create his own class. At USC, the class will have 12 members, 10 of them new this year to the university, and chosen by Harrell after weeks of auditions. He was given the discretion of being able to award scholarships. But that, he says, did not necessarily prove a boon to the students.

"I was very stingy with the scholarship money, and for the reason that I feel that sometimes having to work outside of music--washing dishes for 10 or 20 hours a week, for example--is a very good thing for the students. It gives them an incentive they can't get any other way. It may even give them the idea that they're not so special. And that's a good idea. I suppose it's an old-fashioned concept, but I believe in it."

The challenge of teaching, Harrell thinks, is integration.

"What is interesting to me in bringing to the students a lot of information and advice all at the same time is that I'll be able to try to tie it together for them.

"Teaching technique is not that interesting--I can spend only so many hours explaining spiccato, or helping students make a bigger tone, before I grow tired. But applying technical solutions to musical problems, especially when the student seems to understand what you're talking about, that's satisfying."

A month into his Los Angeles residency--he brought his family lock, stock and cellos here July 1--Harrell looks ready to relax. His most pressing summertime performances are now behind him, and his first day at the university is still weeks away.

The solidly built cellist sits comfortably in the large and airy living room of his recently renovated house in a canyon above Beverly Hills. Outside, and seen through a bank of tall windows, is a tree-shaded yard. "Not enough sunlight for the grass. We've got to replant," Harrell notes.

Inside, an expanse of new floor, the contemporary furnishings comfortable but uncluttered, all of it lit in a subdued manner by skylights. That last performance is three days in the past. It's time to look forward.

In a nearby den, Linda Blandford, Harrell's wife and a longtime journalist, types her weekly column for the Guardian of London. The column used to be titled "An American Diary"; it is now called "Going West." Their two children are visiting the beach. The only movement in the room is provided by a cat, aloof but curious, who looks in from time to time.

To be the first holder of the Piatigorsky Chair is of course an honor, and Harrell has said so publicly a number of times since the appointment was announced. Did he know Piatigorsky well?

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