The Elder Statesman of the Cello World

Director Ty Kim and Cellist Lynn Harrell

Lynn Harrell – A Cellist’s Life is an extraordinary documentary feature film that chronicles the 60-year journey in music of renowned classical cellist Lynn Harrell who has performed around the world as a soloist with every major symphony orchestra. We learn about Lynn’s devastating childhood when he lost both parents (one to cancer, the other in a fatal car crash) to establishing a career as a virtuoso cellist collaborating with the most legendary musicians in history spanning multiple generations. The film includes fresh interviews with iconic musicians of the day such as the cellist Yo-Yo Ma, violinists Itzhak Perlman and Anne-Sophie Mutter, and Oscar-winning composers John Williams and André Previn. Lynn Harrell, a multiple Grammy-award winner, shares his personal revelations about universal themes such as overcoming tragedy, finding a higher purpose in art, what it means to grow old, and the power of music to change lives. His story will captivate and inspire.

Sheet Music Plus had the honor to interview the film’s creator, Director Ty Kim. Ty is a winner of six Los Angeles area Emmys, the National Edward R. Murrow Award and many other awards. Ty honed his craft of storytelling working closely with the late Mike Wallace and the late Ed Bradley at CBS News/60 Minutes for years. A cellist since the age of eight, Ty earned his educational degrees at Stanford University and Harvard Business School. Despite the impressive resume, Ty is extremely humble and kind. We asked him a few questions about the making of this documentary and it was apparent that he was deeply moved by this project. His narrative will resonate with any person who has experienced the joy of music.

Q:  What inspired the documentary about Lynn’s life?
As a student cellist, I grew up listening to Lynn’s recordings.  In my childhood home, Lynn’s record albums (wow–vinyl! I’m dating myself!) were something I studied over and over along with recordings by Pablo Casals, Gregor Piatigorsky, Emanuel Feuermann and others.  When I had the chance to meet Lynn, I literally jumped out of my sneakers with joy.  I had no idea this would lead to a lifelong friendship.  My inspiration was to honor this renowned artist.  After chasing stories all over the world for Mike Wallace at 60 Minutes, I can say Lynn’s story is the most deeply moving story I have ever encountered.  The cello saved his life.  Lynn lost both his parents as a young teenager – one to cancer, the other in a car accident.  All he had left was music.  He turned an impossible situation into a global career.
Q:  How long have you been working on the documentary?
Documentaries are like dog years.  One year of work and planning feels like two or three.  This process has been two years in the planning and making.  There’s an old saying that in filmmaking, you make three movies.  The first movie is the one you plan to shoot.  The second is the one you film with cameras rolling and the third is the one you compose in editing.  I don’t think you ever really let a film go–it’s like giving birth to a child (and my wife and I have two kids, so I think I know!).  You keep combing her hair, and finding new friends and eventually, you find a series of play dates and nice homes to visit.
Q:  What was the most fun part?
Sitting in John Williams’ home screening the film for Maestro Williams was mind blowing.  At one point, he asked me to stop the film to talk about how I filmed certain shots.  He told me the images of the instruments were the most beautiful he had ever seen.  He also told me when I walked into his home, he was working on a score for Steven Spielberg.  When Maestro Williams saw an image I had in my documentary, he says it helped him clarify an idea he was trying to express.  What can you say to the best ever storyteller in history when he gives you that kind of compliment?  I think I managed to croak out a “Thank you.”

John Williams and Ty Kim

There were so many fun moments along the way.  Eating fried chicken and watching the film at André Previn’s apartment in New York.  Lynn and I brought him a feast from Zabar’s and he was so happy.  “I don’t need another pair of cufflinks,” Maestro Previn smiled.  “I need fried chicken!”  Yo-Yo Ma was incredibly generous and a joy to interact with.  We had met in 1989.  I produced a few segments with Mr. Ma before I had joined 60 Minutes.  After years of not seeing him, Yo-Yo greeted me like an old friend.  I am so grateful to Mr. Ma and his team for spending an afternoon with us.  We laughed a lot.  Yo-Yo literally placed his hand inside Lynn’s to compare the size of their hands.  It was like seeing Mickey Mantle and Ted Williams comparing the way they swing a bat!

Lynn Harrell, Andre Previn, and Ty Kim

With all these interactions, Lynn himself amazed me because he was so overwhelmed by the reaction of his esteemed peers.  Lynn is so humble.  He told me he never really knew how much his colleagues loved and respected him until we made this film together.  And, this is an artist who has truly done it all, played with the best in the world, and reached the pinnacle of his craft.  At one point, we were walking down the street in New York City when I asked Lynn if he had ever seen his name etched in granite at Lincoln Center.  He had not.  Lynn was the first co-recipient of the Avery Fisher Prize in 1975.  Lynn had never seen the wall of names including Yo-Yo Ma, Joshua Bell and so many great artists.  I knocked on the glass.  The guard thought I was nuts.  When I explained who Lynn was, it turned out the guard recognized Lynn.  The guard had been to many of these ceremonies awarding the winning artists.  To see Lynn’s face turn into surprise was pure joy.
Q:  What does music mean in your life?
Lately, I have been thinking about the power of music to change lives.  Art is more powerful than a missile, a bomb, or a computer virus.  There is no fear in art.  Only love.  Passion.  Conviction.  Truth.  It connects us all.  Art and music heals, repairs, stitches–because it channels the human spirit.  Music must somehow be essential for life.  It is for me.  In a word, music is a miracle.  Lynn’s early life, shattered by pain and loss, was healed through music.  I heard this quote once and it applies so clearly to Lynn:  “Broken.  Gone.  Lost.  And, the paradox is true.  Resilient.  Determined.  And, finally found again.  For true art – true individual expression cannot be denied.  The human spirit endures.  And, our work, will be judged over time.”
The simplest things sometimes have massive, deep meaning.  Because of my connection with music, it has opened a world to not only myself but also my two children.  Both my children are studying and performing at Tanglewood this summer.  My son, Ryan, plays the double bass.  My daughter, Sabrina, plays the cello.  Watching them grow in music is not only fulfilling, it is life affirming.  I saw my wife and my mother weeping at my son’s concert this summer.  They were crying because they still cannot believe we are seeing this baby we once held in our arms, expressing himself through music.
I passed some of their recordings on YouTube to my wife’s mother who is battling cancer.  And, to my aunt who is recovering from brain surgery.  Hearing our children play music literally brought them moments of relief from their pain and suffering.  What else can do that?  Nothing.  Only music can do this.
Q: What can we learn from Lynn’s story about the power of music?
Whenever I think I’m having a bad day, I remember what Lynn had to live through.  Whenever I think I’m pretty decent at my job, I see this 73-year old dynamo play the Dvorak Cello Concerto better than anyone, and I realize I have a long way to go.  Whenever I encounter someone who I don’t understand or agree with, I remember that we both like music and that is the start of a conversation.
In the end, it’s great to make a living, make enough to send your kids to college, get some respect from your work colleagues, own a house, and maybe travel to some special places.  In the end, Lynn has touched so many lives through his music.
I was in Dallas with Lynn for an advanced private screening of my documentary.  I watched him teach a two and a half hour master class with no breaks.  Five students from around the country brought their skills.  Lynn just blew us away.  His musical knowledge, his technique, his insights about life – the most senior and respected teachers in the country were so moved and astounded.  He really is the elder statesman of the cello world.  He and John Williams might object, but I think Lynn is like a Jedi Master.  The Obi-Wan Kenobi of the cello world.
Lynn Harrell – A Cellist’s Life has had two advanced private screenings in Dallas and Santa Barbara that have generated much acclaim. The next advanced screenings are being planned at Stanford University in Palo Alto and at the SoHo House in Los Angeles which will also include live appearances by the film’s director and the artist. The hope is to develop a series of screening dates in the U.S. and abroad as Maestro Harrell approaches his 75th birthday.  In the meantime, the filmmaker is currently in discussion with two distributors and more information will be shared when it becomes available.
A Note from Ty Kim:
Sheet Music Plus has been invaluable for me as filmmaker, cellist and teacher. The catalog includes a breathtaking range of music that has helped me shape and tell my stories with accuracy and clarity. Most importantly, their team’s personal and responsive approach has led to collaborations on my past two consecutive films. They care so deeply about what they do every day and for reaching for excellence. Sheet Music Plus has my gratitude and respect.

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