The Day I Abandoned Lynn Harrell
In April, we lost another titan of the music world, and the Westchester Phil lost a friend: Cellist Lynn Harrell (read the NYT obit here). The entire music world was saddened by the news, but I couldn’t help but smile at the memory of nearly screwing up his performance with us.
In addition to his greatness on the cello, Lynn was a kind and gentle man that I had the honor of meeting and working with over a four day period in October 2011. He was to perform with us on October 1-2 (read the original program here), with guest conductor Raymond Leppard (who passed away last October; RIP). Harrell was to perform the Tchaikovsky Rococo Variations and the Dvořák Rondo.
The accompanying photo pretty much tells the story of the joy we all experienced that day. Except it almost didn’t happen.
For all of the strength and brilliance of his playing, when he wasn’t playing Lynn’s demeanor was unassuming and his personality easy-going. He was fierce as a player, but in matters non-musical, he simply went with the flow, sometimes to one’s own distraction.
On the first day of rehearsal, I always go to a nearby deli to buy sandwiches for the guest artists to have at the lunch break. Lynn had no opinion about what kind of sandwich he’d like, so I tried a few suggestions.
“Or something like turkey & swiss?”
“That’s fine, too.”
“Or would you prefer a salad or soup?”
“It’s all good.”
I was beginning to think he was either upset at not being offered poached salmon in dill sauce with haricot vert, or perhaps he was fasting and didn’t want to disappoint me. I persisted.
“Lynn. Please tell me what you’d like for lunch.”
“I guess turkey would be nice.”
I decided to seize control of the conversation: “On rye with swiss, lettuce and tomato, a little mayo. Unsweetened iced tea. Ok?”
“Perfect!” he said.
I didn’t bother asking how he liked his coffee.
At Purchase, we put Lynn up at the Doral Arrowwood (also RIP 😥 ), which is just a short five minute ride from the concert hall. Our staff, including me, would split up the local ground transportation chores, ferrying the guest artists between the hotel and concert venue, usually three or four round trips to be divvied up between us. Who drove whom, and when and in which direction, depended on our respective schedules at a given time of day on a concert weekend. Our former Director of Marketing & Development, Lenore Eggleston, and I would coordinate those things. At least we always had, until that Saturday, October 1st. It was 7:50 pm. The concert was to begin at 8:00.
Lenore’s cell phone rang. It was Lynn. Without a shred of anxiety or concern, he calmly said “Hi Lenore, I’ve been waiting in the hotel lobby, and I think I should probably get picked up now.” Lenore later told me his voice was “sunny.”
Lenore and I looked at each other in horror. We each thought the plan was for the other to pick up Lynn for this portion of the schedule, and since we’re both responsible people who take care of their obligations, neither of us thought to check with the other as to whether Lynn was even in the building. Lenore dropped what she was doing, ran to her car, and got Lynn. Moments later, at 8:00 (actual curtain time is normally around 8:07) Lynn calmly strode into the backstage area, took his cello out of its case and warmed up with no particular urgency. Lenore, after parking, stumbled through the same backstage door, breathless and in a cold sweat. Oblivious to our panic, Lynn glided onto the stage at precisely the right time, and tuned with the orchestra. Leppard gave the downbeat, and Leppard, Harrell, and the Westchester Phil brought down the house.
(Lenore and I later reconstructed our planning conversations and determined that it was me who was supposed to pick up Lynn. When Lenore moved on from the Phil a couple of years ago, to become the executive director of the Woodcock Nature Center, I gave her a framed copy of the photo of Lynn.)
The Times’ obit headline is spot on. Lynn Harrell was indeed a gentle giant, in every sense of both of those words. We miss him. May he rest in peace.