CLASSCOL

When the roster of Los Angeles culture heroes is next compiled, the name of Lynn Harrell will figure close to the top. The smiling cellist, New York-born but of tall, blond Texas stock, has been a part of the local scene since he moved here in the 1980s. He has taught a generation of young cellists at USC’s School of Music as the heir to the equally tall, legendary, Gregor Piatigorsky. He has led, with enormous spirit and resource, the admirable summer Philharmonic Institute (now temporarily, but tragically, in abeyance). And he has turned on lights all over the area with the splendor of his playing. Thursday night he celebrated his 48th birthday by performing the solo cello part in Richard Strauss’ “Don Quixote,” a warhorse which he rode easily and masterfully. The week before, at the Philharmonic’s “Green Umbrella” new-music concert at the Japan-America Theater, he had been soloist in something even more extraordinary, the Concerto by Gyorgy Ligeti, a killer piece which he performed as easily, as masterfully, as — well, as the “Don Quixote.” Nothing holds terrors for Lynn Harrell. He is a performer whose adoration of the art he serves plays across his wonderful, outsize countenance, up there on the stage. He is a joy for the eye and the ear in equal measure. He comes by it naturally. His father was the great baritone Mack Harrell, who died at 50, far too young for the great art he gave us. Baritones and cellists have a lot in common, of course, but there is more that this father and son have in common. Harrell was a phenomenal artist who could take on almost any kind of music and do it full justice. If you were around New York in the 1940s and ’50s, you’d hear Mack Harrell in a Bach Cantata one week, a Schubert or Schumann song cycle the next, on the Metropolitan Opera stage in roles as diverse as Papageno and Amfortas. When the Met finally got around to Stravinsky’s “The Rake’s Progress,” Harrell was the inevitable, and brilliant, choice to sing the diabolical Nick Shadow. When Dimitri Mitropolos and the New York Philharmonic broadcast Alban Berg’s “Wozzeck” in 1951, the first time many of us had heard this landmark score, Harrell was the Wozzeck, the only member of the cast to sing the notes on pitch and with overpowering emotion as well. (If you’re lucky, you might find the recording.) Mack Harrell was more than a great artist, then; he was a valuable one, an artist who made things happen that wouldn’t have happened if he hadn’t been there. That’s what his son has developed into as well. The world is well populated with cellists these days, more so than usual, perhaps. Some of them — you know their names — are among the greatest musicians today on any instrument. But there’s even more to Lynn Harrell than that, because of the many ways he makes things happen. Someone came up to me at the intermision of the first “Green Umbrella” concert, a highly placed and intelligent cultural leader. “You know,” she said, “I would swap a dozen Philharmonic subscription concerts for one like this.” She was on target; it was an extraordinary concert for all the best reasons: the music, the way it was played, and the way it was received. The only subscription concert that has come close to that level this season was last week’s with Dawn Upshaw. Yet, when the Philharmonic starts crying poverty, as it has this season, it’s the “Umbrella” series that gets cut back. It was, indeed, an exceptionally rewarding and challenging evening, with the formidable Elliott Carter on hand to beam pride at a clutch of his short chamber and solo pieces, and with Oliver Knussen, that great teddy-bear of a conductor, in charge. The Carter pieces were Carter as usual, mostly desiccated notes being pushed around a page seemingly at random but probably with a great skill that I cannot bring myself to recognize. The great Witold Lutoslawski had sent over a brand-new and most flavorsome song-cycle, delicious pieces about flowers that sing, and these songs were splendidly sung by Solveig Kringelborn, a new Scandinavian soprano who sounds as delightful as her name. And there was, as the evening’s high point, Harrell’s performance of the Ligeti: a stupendous musical conceit that seems to rise out of utter silence, flame forth in showers of sparks, only to fall back again into a void whose very emptiness one could actually feel. A work of great fantasy, this 13-minute score from 1966; at the “Umbrella” it fell into sympathetic hands and stirred an alert capacity audience to cheers. Meanwhile, back at the Philharmonic… This week’s program was only given twice, so you’ve already missed Harrell’s richly humorous traversal of Don Quixote’s famous escapades, with equally good-hearted support from the orchestra under David Zinman. The program also served to introduce Christopher Rouse, 42, currently teaching composition at Rochester’s Eastman School, and much performed by East Coast orchestras. Rouse’s best known works are a series of short orchestral workouts, fearsomely loud, fast and cloaked in a superficial virtuosity. Not so the First Symphony, designed as if in atonement as a single slow movement meandering through the better (or, let’s say, the longer) part of half an hour. On its meandering course, it take in a few gulps of Mahler, a fair chunk of Bruckner (including a direct quote from the Seventh Symphony) and rather a lot of Shostakovich. Pastiche? No, more like hodgepodge: a set of roughed-out eclectic episodes that hand off some interesting sounds along the way, ioncluding a few sonic booms to evoke memories of the Christopher Rouse we all know, but fail to come together in any way that might stand in as an individual composer with something to say. This was the only contemporary symphonic work on a Philharmonic subscription concert from now until the end of the season. It’s not hard to agree with that woman I talked to at the “Umbrella.” The next “Umbrella” concert, by the way, is tomorrow night.