Cellist's stellar career back in his own hands; Music: Lynn Harrell better than ever after carpal tunnel syndrome nearly snatched his beloved instrument.


Late last spring, cellist Lynn Harrell began to fear that his career as one of the greatest cellists of the last half-century might be over.

The cellist, who performs Tchaikovsky's "Rococo Variations" starting tomorrow with the Baltimore Symphony, decided he needed surgery to remove cartilage in both knees that was, he says, "the consequence of more than 30 years of tennis, jogging and golf."

In a post-operative conference, however, Harrell asked his surgeon to take a look at his hands.

"For a few years I had been feeling a slight numbness in my left hand," Harrell says. "That disturbed me, but it didn't affect my playing. But more recently, the index finger on my right hand had begun to hurt, and that worried me."

His doctor examined the painful finger, Harrell says, and then looked up and said: "You need some space up there. And I'm afraid you have carpal tunnel syndrome in the other hand, too."

Those are terrifying words to any musician. Carpal tunnel syndrome, a disorder in which the nerve that passes through the wrist has been injured by repetitive stress, had ended several prominent careers, including those of pianists Leon Fleisher and Gary Graffman. What had happened to Harrell's knees had happened to his hands, and it threatened his life as an artist, not merely his pleasure as a recreational athlete.

He was at the height of his technical and interpretive powers in a career that extended back 49 years to the time that the then-5-year-old Harrell asked his father, the celebrated baritone Mack Harrell, for a cello.

"He said, 'You're too young -- ask me again when you're eight,' " Harrell says. "So I asked him on my eighth birthday and he said, 'I was hoping you had forgotten.' "

The Harrell family moved from New York City to Dallas when Mack Harrell accepted a position as artist-in-residence at Southern Methodist University. It was a lucky move for Lynn, the youngest of three children. Among his father's closest friends and colleagues at SMU was Lev Aronson, a superb Russian-born cellist and teacher who had been himself one of the favorite pupils of the legendary Gregor Piatigorsky.

The cello was to be his solace throughout the next six years -- years in which his father died of cancer when the cellist was 15 and his mother two years later in an automobile accident. At the age of 17, Harrell realized that he was on his own.

He had been studying with Leonard Rose at the Juilliard School in New York for two years and had made his Carnegie Hall debut as a soloist with the New York Philharmonic at age 16. He needed time before he would be able to earn his living as a soloist, but he didn't have any time before needing to make a living.

Without any orchestral experience, he became the youngest member -- at 18 -- of George Szell's cello section in the Cleveland Orchestra. Two years later, still only 20, he became the youngest principal cellist in American orchestral history. Seven years later in 1971, he struck out on his own, becoming -- with Yo-Yo Ma -- one of the two best-known cellists of the last three decades.

Now that life was threatened.

"My wife thought I'd never be able to go through the operation [to correct the condition]," Harrell says. "The thought of both hands being cut open did indeed terrify me. But the thought that I'd lose all feeling in my hands and never be able to play again frightened me even more."

The operation was a success, but Harrell had to stop doing something that he had been doing every day since he was an 8-year-old -- play the cello.

"It was a difficult, but also a wonderful time," Harrell says. "For five months, my wife and my two children were all together. It was a pleasure I had never experienced since the twins were born 18 years ago."

Harrell's recovery was complete. He believes -- as do the critics who have been reviewing him -- that since his return to concertizing this past October, he has been playing better than ever.

"And it couldn't have come at a better time," Harrell says, with a grin.

"Eben's at Princeton and Katherine's at Vassar," he says of his twins. "That's $30,000 a year for each child -- and that's just tuition.

"Believe me," the cellist says, "that all adds up to needing to give a lot of concerts!"

Lynn Harrell

What: Conductor Gunther Herbig leads the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra with Harrell

When: Tomorrow, Friday and Saturday at 8 p.m.

Where: Meyerhoff Symphony Hall, 1212 Cathedral St.

Tickets: $21-$55

Call: 410-783-8000 Pub Date: 2/03/99

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