Late cellist Lynn Harrell found a spiritual home in Aspen

Lynn Harrell was often dreaming of his next trip to Aspen. One of the most celebrated cellists of his time, he had traveled the world over to perform but few places had settled into his being like this tiny ski town in the Rocky Mountains.

In fact, the last conversation his son, Eben Harrell, had with his father before his sudden passing had come only two days prior when he was talking about a summer trip back to the Roaring Fork Valley.

“He said, ‘Eben, we are going to try and plan a trip to Aspen this summer. I want to see it one more time before I die,’” Eben Harrell said. “Aspen was where he would go in the summers for his soul to be replenished, in part because it brought him back to his own childhood there.”

Lynn Harrell died April 27 at his home in Santa Monica, California, at age 76. Aspen was somewhat of a second home for him, going back to when his father, noted concert vocalist Mack Harrell, was among the founding faculty members of what is now the Aspen Music Festival and School. Lynn Harrell returned as a student, faculty member and featured artist over the years, notably from 1970 to 2000.

“He was most at home in Aspen and I think so many of his most formative and joyous experiences were there,” said Ara Guzelimian, currently the dean and provost of The Juilliard School in New York, where Harrell was once a student and teacher. “You could just see him lighten the minute he arrived in Aspen. He was home.”

Guzelimian had known Harrell since the 1980s, including the time he was the artistic administrator for the AMFS from 1993 to 1998. By then Harrell was among the most accomplished cello players of his generation and a star among stars in Aspen. Eben Harrell, who grew up in Beverly Hills, said while they were actor Sylvester Stallone’s neighbors at one point, his father was always “tickled” when Hollywood’s elite would recognize him in Aspen.

“He was standing waiting to buy something on a day he was playing a concert, and Kevin Costner came in to buy something and then was starstruck immediately,” recalled Linda Blandford, Lynn Harrell’s first wife and Eben’s mother. Harrell remarried in 2002 to violinist Helen Nightengale. “He couldn’t get over the fact that Kevin Costner said to him, ‘I’m looking forward to the concert later.’ That was a high point of that season for Lynn.”

At 6-foot-4, Harrell had quite the presence and could even make a cello look small. Still, Guzelimian said he was mostly “a teddy bear of a man” who had a “child-like aspect to his personality — that eyes-wide-open sense of wonder.”

Guzelimian said the last time he saw Harrell play was in October during the season kickoff gala at Carnegie Hall; Harrell was born in Manhattan and that is believed to have been his final performance in New York City.

“He channeled the cello as a singing voice, because his father was a great singer. That sense of really personal utterance that a singer brings, and his father was a particularly honest singer. Lynn internalized that into his own voice as a cellist,” Guzelimian said. “There was a natural bigness to his playing, a generosity to his playing, and the sense of embrace in his playing — he was an extremely communicative musician. It was while playing that he spoke truest.”

Harrell had many close musical partners over the years, highlighted by violinists Itzhak Perlman and Anne-Sophie Mutter, as well as pianist Vladimir Ashkenazy. He won two Grammy Awards in the 1980s alongside Perlman and Ashkenazy.

“He didn’t just master what was there for the cello. He expanded it,” said current AMFS President and CEO Alan Fletcher. “He became one of the most important musicians in the world. As a cellist, I would compare him to Yo-Yo Ma or to Alisa Weilerstein as people who just mastered every single thing about the cello, about the cello repertoire, and then transcended it.”

Harrell traveled the world, living the life of a beloved musician, but it was Aspen that always centered him. Eben Harrell, who also couldn’t resist the pull of the Rockies and now lives in Durango, said the family hopes to make good on Lynn’s summer plans and scatter some of his ashes in Aspen.

“He is coming home,” a choked up Guzelimian said when learning of the family’s desire to bring Lynn back to Aspen. “The informality of Aspen suited him. The eternal cycle of young musicians who came energized him. And being in nature energized him. And all of that tied to his deep family history made Aspen the place he was most at home and most happy.”