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Lynn Harrell, acclaimed American cellist, is dead at 76

Lynn Harrell, a leading American cellist whose acclaimed playing, begun when he was 8 years old, combined robust sound, insightful musicianship and feeling for nuances, died on April 27 at his home in Santa Monica, Calif. He was 76.

His death was announced on social media by his wife, Helen Nightengale, a violinist and former student. His death was sudden, she said by phone, perhaps caused by cardiac arrest.

In his 20s critics were already describing Mr. Harrell as a “gentle giant” of the cello, and both words applied. At 6 feet 4 inches tall and built like a linebacker, with long arms and enormous hands, he seemed to envelope the cello when he played it, producing burnished and penetrating sound easily. Yet he was also a sensitive interpreter and subtle colorist.

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“As a violinist, I learned the most about how to make a true pianissimo from Lynn,” Nightengale said. That blend of impetuous fervor and beguiling delicacy remained true throughout Mr. Harrell’s career, including a 2014 performance of Dvorak’s Cello Concerto with the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra at Carnegie Hall conducted by James Levine. (The two had been friends since their student days at the Aspen Festival.) In the wistful second movement, Mr. Harrell balanced aching lyricism with clearheaded directness.

He appeared as a soloist with the major orchestras of the world, including performances of contemporary concertos by Henri Dutilleux and Donald Erb (a piece he commissioned). He made frequent appearances in “Live From Lincoln Center” television broadcasts. And he shared two Grammy Awards in the 1980s with the violinist Itzhak Perlman and the pianist Vladimir Ashkenazy, for recordings of Beethoven’s Complete Piano Trios and Tchaikovsky’s Trio in A Minor.

His gifts were apparent to his musical parents early on, though neither lived to see their son’s adult success.

Lynn Harrell was born in Manhattan on Jan. 30, 1944, to Mack Harrell, a noted baritone, and Marjorie Fulton Harrell, a successful violinist. As a boy he studied the piano indifferently, until he switched eagerly to the cello at 8, drawn by the plush sound and sheer size of the instrument. (He was already big for his age.) He began lessons with Lev Aronson, principal cellist of the Dallas Symphony, though at the time, he later recalled, he was more passionate about sports.

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“It was baseball at the time,” he said in an interview with The New York Times in 1977. “I was always on one of the best teams in the city.”

But Aronson, who had been interned in Nazi concentration and labor camps during World War II, inspired a deep love for music in his young student. “He was my very first close friend in that emotional world,” Mr. Harrell said.

In 1960, when Mr. Harrell was 15, his father died of cancer at 50. Two years later his mother died in a car crash en route to Fort Worth to perform in a recital. For a while he lived with various family friends, moving from house to house bearing one suitcase and a cello.

He told tTimes in an interview 17 years after his father’s death that he did not really remember hearing his father singing at home, except for his vocal exercises. “He was not much of a musical influence on me until after he died,” Mr. Harrell said. He then began immersing himself in his father’s recordings, from which he absorbed qualities that make a cello line sing.

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“The cello covers all four vocal ranges,” he explained, “so the vibrations are all within the range of human speech.”

Mr. Harrell studied at the Juilliard School in New York with Leonard Rose and at the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia with Orlando Cole. He also auditioned for George Szell, the imperious conductor of the Cleveland Orchestra, who had worked with Mack Harrell at the Metropolitan Opera. At 18, Mr. Harrell joined the violin section of the Cleveland Orchestra; just over two years later, in 1964, he became principal cellist.

That same year he made his New York recital debut at Carnegie Recital Hall, accompanied by pianist Samuel Sanders, in a program that the Times described as a “triumph.”

“He has music in his bones, plus a technique than many cellists two or three times his age can envy,” the Times reviewer, Theodore Strongin, wrote, adding that Mr. Harrell was “already a finished musician” and a “definite stage personality.”

In 1971, a recital he gave with Levine, playing piano, at Alice Tully Hall at Lincoln Center also caught attention. Restless to embark on a solo career, Mr. Harrell left the Cleveland Orchestra that year. His daring paid off.

In 1975, he shared the first Avery Fisher Prize with pianist Murray Perahia. He began making recordings, many of them acclaimed. His discography of some 50 albums includes the premiere recording of Victor Herbert’s Cello Concerto No. 1, with Neville Marriner conducting the Academy of St. Martin-in-the-Fields; William Walton’s Cello Concerto, with Simon Rattle conducting the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra; and the Dvorak Concerto, with Ashkenazy leading the Philharmonia Orchestra.

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In 1975, Mr. Harrell was interviewed for the British newspaper The Observer by Linda Blandford, an English writer, and within a year they married. Twins from that marriage, which ended in divorce, survive him: Eben Harrell and Kate Harrell Walker. Other survivors include two children from his marriage to Nightengale, Hanna and Noah Harrell, and a sister, Jane Harrell Nealson.

In 1987, feeling like “a driven man” who had typically spent more than 300 days a year on the road performing, as he told The Chicago Tribune at the time, he decided to leave his apartment in New York (a “gloried pit stop”) and take a teaching job at the University of Southern California, though he continued to travel and perform. He also had teaching stints at the Royal Academy of Music in London, the Cleveland Institute of Music, Juilliard and other institutions.

In recent years he underwent hip and knee replacements and back surgery. Critics noted a diminishment in his technique. He had planned to announce his retirement from performing at the end of this season, before the coronavirus pandemic forced the cancellation of his scheduled performances.