Last Thursday, at an unspeakably early hour, I headed to the Portland airport to fly to Laramie, Wyoming. I was headed there to reunite with my University of Maryland graduate string quartet colleagues ( John Fadial and Jeffrey Multer, violins and Beth Vanderborgh, cellist) to play Brahms’ G major String Sextet with them, UW viola faculty Jim Przygocki, and renowned cellist Lynn Harrell. It was a fantastic trip for many reasons, but chief among them were getting to see my old friends for the first time in 30 years (!) and to get to play with such a legendary artist as Lynn Harrell.
The Brahms is one of those special pieces of music that should be played more often, but inexplicably is not. My suspicion is that the piece takes a bit more rehearsal time than its B-flat major sibling (a decidedly earlier and more extroverted piece) and isn’t itself a very flashy piece. It’s a piece of great depth and subtlety which invites contemplation and really digging into its depths. I had the occasion to read it a few times over the years (mostly long ago), and my sole previous performance dates from when I was still a (gasp) violinist, nearly 35 years ago.
Regardless, it’s a piece that rewards only after you’ve paid your dues in terms of personal practice, score study, and diligent rehearsal. Luckily for me, all of these factors aligned for this performance! It’s one of those pieces that make me so happy to be a violist, and Brahms does the violists a favor in this piece by not writing anything too awkward. (I’m looking at you A major Quartet and G minor Piano Quartet!)
It’s an interesting thing, reconnecting with friends that you’ve made music with at a very different time in your lives. The four of us are pretty much at the mature peak of our careers. John and Beth both are tenured faculty at the University of Wyoming, Jeff is concertmaster of the Florida Orchestra, and I’m doing my thing here in Portland with the Oregon Symphony and several other ensembles. We’ve got a lot more life experience under our belts. But when we would hang out after rehearsals, it was like we were back in our college years. The jokes would fly, some of the wise-cracks from decades ago would find themselves back on the tip of our tongues – not having been thought about for years – and there was so much laughter in this weekend! What a joy!
There was also a real shorthand of getting through the piece, too. Our couple rehearsals were very efficient. If stuff worked, we didn’t talk about it. It was accepted as a given and we would hone in on those places that needed the attention. I’ve often heard chamber music described as the ultimate exercise in musical trust – you need to know that your partners have your back, and that you’ve got theirs. It’s why those same people that I’ve played chamber music with the longest are those who I feel the closest to in one way – there is a communication beyond the verbal, and trust that has been built over years of performances.
So, on to Lynn Harrell. He really does merit the descriptor “legendary”. There is little he hasn’t done in the musical world. He has been principal cellist of the Cleveland Orchestra under George Szell, played with nearly every orchestra in the world, been a chamber music collaborator with such performers as Itzhak Perlman, Anne-Sophie Mutter, Yuri Bashmet, Bruno Giuranna, and many others. Some of this recordings remain for me, some of the greatest cello recordings ever. His Schubert Arpeggione recording with James Levine is truly one of the most tasteful and sublime recordings of Schubert ever committed to disc. Getting a chance to make music with someone like this is a privilege and an honor. And intimidating as hell!
But luckily, Lynn was a supportive and congenial collaborator, and was absolutely humble and self-effacing in all aspects. Watching and listening to how he would shape a phrase was illuminating, and then talking to him about his musical experiences was like having a first-hand history lesson. Plus, his love of Marx Brothers jokes (and a couple pretty ribald ones that he got from violist Michael Tree) was really special, too! In one passage, Beth was working on trying to get a fuller pizzicato sound on a note played with the fourth finger, and Lynn instantly said “press less with your fourth finger, and more with your third – vibrate with the third finger” and it was the absolute perfect thing – and something that I’m going to try during today’s practice session! His relentless curiosity was one of the most amazing things about him. He talked about wanting to learn more about pizzicato (which he noted was the one thing that no teacher of his had ever discussed in a lesson with him) and so he went to the harpist and principal bassist of the Cleveland Orchestra and picked their brains on the subject. How fabulous is that?
There was a Portland connection to the event as well (other than me). Lynn owns a cello made by Christopher Dungey, who used to be in Eugene, Oregon, but is now located in Grand Junction, Colorado. Turns out, Lynn ended up using another cello that Chris had on hand in his shop, which ended up being owned by the Oregon Symphony’s own Kenneth Finch! Dungey also has a cello in the hands of our wonderful principal cellist of the OSO, Nancy Ives.
All in all, it was an incredible journey over a couple days, and will stay in my memory for a long time to come!