Jewish Journal

Cellist Lynn Harrell’s Meta Moment

Lynn Harrell in a scene from “Cello.” Photo courtesy of Hannoah Productions

It’s a somewhat meta moment: A world-renowned cellist playing a world-renowned cellist in a 20-minute movie simply titled, “Cello.”

Lynn Harrell, a two-time Grammy winner, now has added another string to his bow (pun intended): actor. The 74-year-old currently is garnering accolades in his role as master cellist Ansel Evans, who is slowly dying from amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS).

Harrell already has won several best actor awards at film festivals, including Top Shorts, the Hollywood International Moving Pictures Film Festival, the New York Film Awards, IndieFest, and he’s a finalist in the Actors Awards Los Angeles.

Tall, with a shock of white hair and piercing blue eyes, the soft-spoken Harrell could easily land a seasonal job as Santa Claus. Speaking with the Journal at a café near his home in Santa Monica, Harrell said, “I’m absolutely dumbstruck that I’ve been acclaimed now as an actor. I picture the judges looking at the film and saying, ‘My god, that guy looks like he can really play the cello. That’s good acting!’ ”

Until now, Harrell’s only acting experience was memorizing Shakespeare while in school. This led him to recall spending time with British actor Ian McKellen. “He’s a friend of mine,” Harrell said, in a way that only world-renowned musicians can say about hanging out with world-renowned actors. “He stayed at our house when he was doing some filming in L.A., and there’s one look [in my film] that I picked up from Ian when he was performing ‘Macbeth.’ I don’t think he knows I’ve made a film yet, though.”

“It vibrated deeply in my soul, that this was the first time the Vatican officially recognized the Holocaust.” — Lynn Harrell

Harrell isn’t about to turn in his cello any time soon. One of the most poignant lines in the film comes as his character’s abilities are deteriorating when he says, “I miss my cello. I miss me.”

That line spoke deeply to Harrell, who sees his cello as an extension of himself. What would he do if he could no longer play? “I’d have to cross that bridge to see what would evolve,” he said. “It’s such a part of me that it would be a devastation. It has been the source of my music, my performing career. It’s also my best friend.”

Harrell took up the cello at the age of 8, but it wasn’t until he met his teacher — Lev Aronson — when he was 11, that he truly understood the relationship between himself and his instrument.

It’s also where the Presbyterian-born and raised Harrell began his love affair with the Jewish people. In 1994, Harrell performed the Kol Nidre service at the Vatican along with the Royal Philharmonic orchestra in front of Pope John Paul II to commemorate the Holocaust. “I did that for Lev,” Harrell said. “It vibrated deeply in my soul, that this was the first time the Vatican officially recognized the Holocaust.”

Fast forward 15 years and Harrell finally converted to Judaism. He and his second wife joined Temple Beth Shir Shalom in Santa Monica, and Harrell said, “I realized over many years up till then that all my friends, girlfriends — my two wives — were always Jewish.”

In 2009, Harrell went to Jerusalem for part of his conversion. “I did my mikveh in the stream under the Wailing Wall. I always felt up until then I was on the outside looking in, but now I was finally in.”

Harrell is heading to Sedona, Ariz., shortly for another film festival, and he’s got plenty of upcoming concerts to still keep him busy. Asked about whether he’s had a bar mitzvah yet, Harrell is surprised to hear he can have one.

“Really?” he said. “I can have an adult bar mitzvah? I’ll have to talk to [my rabbi].”