A Sad Day: Lynn Harrell Has Died

The news arrived early Monday morning that Lynn Harrell passed away. It was devastating.

I’ve been fortunate enough to know and work with Lynn for more than a decade. Our work literally took us to the other side of the world and throughout those journeys, the best part was getting to know Lynn.

Regular readers know that one of my pet peeves is how often “beloved” is used in marketing copy. It’s a potent word that’s been diluted through overuse, but Lynn is an ideal example where that word is not only deserved but demanded.

He was the archetype of generosity and authenticity.

Everywhere he went, he was easy to connect with and could make lifelong personal bonds in a single conversation. He was the ultimate dinner guest, capable of entertaining friends and colleagues with an endless stream of anecdotes that were every bit as engaging as they were entertaining.

Lynn was simultaneously an expert listener. He had a unique ability to concentrate on a conversation, process what he heard, and engage with a sincerely empathetic response. Simply put, his ability to connect with others was astounding. It’s one of the reasons why was such a tremendous coach and teacher.

He possessed a unique combination of confidence and unpretentiousness. He wouldn’t think twice about pulling out his cello in an airport concourse to practice. Not perform, but practice.

In an age where artists strive to craft every public moment as a profound statement of art, Lynn could just…be. This only endeared him to his friends and fans.

Like many artists at his level, his work ethic was the stuff of legend.

He was constantly practicing and for years, I wondered if he ever had a limit where he was just too tired or wasn’t motivated enough to work at keeping his skills sharp. If there was, I never saw it.

In 2010, I expected to see Lynn’s limit but only ended up being reminded why assumptions are dangerous.

We were in Kathmandu, Nepal where Lynn and his wife, violinist Helen Nightengale, were working with the Unatti Foundation, which provides education and housing for eighteen girls from diverse impoverished backgrounds.

While there, Lynn and I took a side trip for some work with another foundation where Lynn served as an artist ambassador. This took us to the remote western region of the country. It started with a flight in a tiny twin prop plane through (not over) the Himalayas followed by a several hour long car trip across challenging switchback dirt roads.

We arrived late in the afternoon, our hotel had intermittent electricity and no running water.

It’s worth pointing out Lynn has almost thirty years on me and by the time we finally arrived, I was exhausted. Lynn went to his room while I went out to the roof to get a look at my surroundings and let my mind slowly decompress.

I could see buildings with partially collapsed walls, and you could see people cooking with wood fires. Below us was a tiny courtyard where two women were processing large piles of cotton by hand. It felt remarkably quiet.

Then, out of the stillness came Bach.

It was Lynn playing through the cello suites, stopping from time to time to try something a little different or make an adjustment to his instrument.

Lynn kept at it for a good 90 minutes and provided the soundtrack to that evening’s sunset. I could see people in buildings across the way stop when they heard Lynn’s playing and just listen.

If that weren’t enough, his spirt was infectious. I’ve never met another soul who loved to laugh as much as Lynn. He could make you feel better about anything, no matter how bad of a day you were endured.

He had a seemingly endless repertoire of delightful stories and was a master at telling them.

In many ways, he was also an open book. Growing up in the age of conscription I recall asking him once how he managed to avoid getting drafted. “Oh, I did!” he exclaimed with a certain look in his eye, “but I managed a way around it.”

Over the coming months, I have no doubt there will be numerous tributes highlighting Lynn’s many accomplishments and I look forward to reading each and every one.

For me, Lynn will also be one of those rare individuals who not only made the world a better place by walking through it, but someone who lived with a level of passion and sincerity few allow themselves to experience.

I could go on and on but I’m going to leave things there for now and close out this tribute by sharing a few photos from our project in Baglung, Nepal.

A pit stop on our way to Baglung and without a doubt, my favorite photo with Lynn. There was only one beer available and yes, he did share.
View from Baglung hotel roof. Lynn was in his room not even 20 feet away, playing Bach.
View from Baglung hotel roof of local women working cotton with the sounds of Lynn playing through Bach’s cello suites.
My favorite photo of Lynn. Part of our time in Baglung included this performance for the entire town. In the middle of one piece, this little boy became transfixed and walked right up to touch the cello while Lynn played. The look of warmth on Lynn’s face is something one would never forget.

About Drew McManus

"I hear that every time you show up to work with an orchestra, people get fired." Those were the first words out of an executive's mouth after her board chair introduced us. That executive is now a dear colleague and friend but the day that consulting contract began with her orchestra, she was convinced I was a hatchet-man brought in by the board to clean house.

I understand where the trepidation comes from as a great deal of my consulting and technology provider work for arts organizations involves due diligence, separating fact from fiction, interpreting spin, as well as performance review and oversight. So yes, sometimes that work results in one or two individuals "aggressively embracing career change" but far more often than not, it reinforces and clarifies exactly what works and why.

In short, it doesn't matter if you know where all the bodies are buried if you can't keep your own clients out of the ground, and I'm fortunate enough to say that for more than 15 years, I've done exactly that for groups of all budget size from Qatar to Kathmandu.

For fun, I write a daily blog about the orchestra business, provide a platform for arts insiders to speak their mind, keep track of what people in this business get paid, help write a satirical cartoon about orchestra life, hack the arts, and love a good coffee drink.

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