"Her interpretation had everything: despair, ecstasy, frenzy, lyricism, passionate pleading and heartbreaking pathos," noted the Las Vegas Review of one of Ofra Harnoy's many performances on international stages. With her flair for romantic dress laced with a touch of modern Gothic, cellist Harnoy is not the stereotypical classical music superstar, though she has enjoyed excellent classical training. Harnoy is bold, outspoken, and flamboyant. She plays with a singular method and her popularity extends to audiences not traditionally associated with the cello, or with masters like Vivaldi. "It's encouraging for me to walk by a construction worker," she confided to Patricia Hluchy in Maclean's, "and hear him say, 'Hey, Ofra Harnoy, I have your latest album.'" Indeed, her recordings range from Vivaldi's complete cello concertos to 1996's Imagine, her second compilation of cello interpretations of songs by The Beatles.
Critics around the world have heaped praise on Harnoy: "Born to the instrument," reported the New York Times, "the music seemed to sing within her as it was played. This is a rare gift indeed." The Los Angeles Herald Examiner called her "a sensational cellist," citing a "silken tone, lyrical phrasing [and] breathtaking command of the cello and all its possibilities." The Baltimore Sun called her "someone in whom the language of music resonates with the same naturalness as breathing or speaking … the charismatic Miss Harnoy has something important to communicate when she performs."
According to a writer for Maclean's, Harnoy is "the most distinctive young musician to emerge from Canada since Glenn Gould … Her technique and dexterity are preternatural, the cello sound is sumptuous and the emotional power and control are heart-stopping. It makes one wonder if there is Paganini of the cello in our midst." The Strad reported, "her interpretation was full of vibrancy and sensual appeal. Her tone was assured and distinctive in its blend of warmth, tension and power." BBC Music Magazine characterized Harnoy as, "an artist of undoubted calibre … combining rich sonority with astounding virtuosity."
Early Musical Influences
Even as a small child, Harnoy's lyrically passionate playing won the hearts of her listeners, which is hardly a surprise when one looks at her earliest musical influences. Harnoy was born in Israel in 1965. Her mother, a pianist, was listening to Tchaikovsky just an hour before her daughter was born. The serious youngster received her first miniature cello at the age of six, and was taught for the first two years by her father, an amateur violinist who continues to act as her producer on many of her best selling recordings.
About the time her family came to Canada via England in 1972, Harnoy began studying cello at the Royal Conservatory of Music in Toronto. She was tutored there by some of the most accomplished instructors in the world, including Vladimir Orloff and William Pleeth, Pierre Fournier, Jacqueline du Pre, and Mstislav Rostropovich. In 1978, at the age of 13, Harnoy was already a seasoned performer when she made her solo debut with the Montreal Symphony. She had performed publicly since the age of six, and her professional debut had come in 1975, at age ten, with Dr. Boyd Neel and his Orchestra.
When she was just 15, Harnoy became the youngest musician ever to win the New York Concert Artists Guild Competition, a contest which began before World War II. "When I first went to the competition," she told Arthur Kaptainis of the Globe and Mail, "people told me, 'Well, you made it in Canada, but Canada is Canada, and when you go to the States, your playing will not be accepted there. It is not like (that of) the Juilliard students, who play very squarely and precisely, and aren't free and natural.' I thought, well, I have a choice here. I can play the way Juilliard students play—an actor can act many parts—but it's not me. I thought, I may lose in the first elimination, and I'll have to take it, but I'm not going to change. So I went there and played completely 'me.' Obviously, people liked it, so I kept doing that."
Winning this competition gave her the opportunity for two New York appearances, including one at Carnegie Hall. "I have never experienced anything like that," Harnoy said of her Carnegie Hall appearance. "I really felt I was doing what I wanted to be doing." She told Kaptainis, "At first, I thought, Carnegie is just a name; it's just another hall with the name 'Carnegie' in front of it. But when I was there, I knew what it was. The big hall has so many ghosts, so much history to it. You feel so special walking down the corridor so many have walked before … Ha! Sounds like a kitschy old romance novel!"
Still not yet old enough to drive, Harnoy had a career that was already well on its way. A university education was very important to her, but years in an alternate school system, where she developed her own personal curriculum, led Harnoy to eventually conclude that she was intelligent and resourceful enough to learn all she needed and wanted through her own course of study. She pushed on with her career, making award-winning recordings and performing on the world's most hallowed stages. Harnoy's reputation has given her the opportunity to premier several new or newly discovered works, including Cello Concerto in G, by Offenbach, which she performed as a soloist in 1983 with the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra, and the North American debut of the Bliss Cello Concerto, in Santa Barbara, California, in 1984. Her 1985 album, Ofra Harnoy and the Oxford String Quartet Play the Beatles, made a solid and somewhat surprising showing on the pop charts and reflected Harnoy's interest in and success at bridging musical styles and tastes.
Since this early fame, Harnoy has become one of the busiest musicians on the international scene and has won many prestigious competitions throughout the world. She became the first Canadian classical recording artist since Glenn Gould to sign an exclusive world recording contract with a major international label—in her case, RCA Victor.
During her time in the limelight, though, Harnoy has also been criticized extensively by some in the industry for a perceived lack of discipline and maturity in her performances. "Some say Miss Harnoy could use a little maturity," wrote Kaptainis, "others, more cleverly, insist she has more of it than any cellist her age deserves … maturity seems to be the last thing she needs, or deserves. Her playing has been too good, too immediate, and too vital to be hamstrung by such grey-haired, bow legged, and arthritic conceits."
Harnoy confidently responds to criticisms about her technique by remaining keenly aware of what works for her and following her instincts. "I have a very personal style of playing," she told Kaptainis, "some like it, some don't. I don't follow any method. If somebody else tried to hold the bow the way I hold it, they would find it practically impossible. On the other hand, if I try to hold the bow the so-called proper way, I can't do anything with it… The same with sitting. People approach me and say, 'How in the world can you have control if you don't hold your cello properly the way cellists are supposed to?' But it doesn't work for me."
For the Record …
Born on January 31, 1965, in Hadera, Israel; became a naturalized Canadian, 1977; daughter of Jacob (an amateur violinist) and Carmen (a pianist); married briefly to a Yugoslavian waterpolo player, 1991; later married Robert Cash; one child. Education: Studied cello at Britten-Peers School in Aldeburgh as well as with Jacob Harnoy (beginning at age six), Vladimir Orloff (Toronto), William Pleeth (London), and master classes with Pierre Fournier, Jacqueline du Pre, and Mstislav Rostropovich.
First public concert at the age of six; professional solo debut with the Boyd Neel Orchestra, 1975; guest soloist with the Montreal Symphony at age 13, 1978; solo orchestral and recital debut at Carnegie Hall, 1982; soloist in world premier of Cello Concerto, by Jacques Offenbach, recorded with Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra, 1983; North American debut of the Bliss Cello Concerto, Santa Barbara, 1984; published her book, Five Minutes, Miss Harnoy, in Japan, 1990; invited by Prince Charles to perform with Placido Domingo and Jessye Norman at the Symphony for the Spire Benefit for Salisbury Cathedral, 1991.
Awards: Montreal Symphony Competition, First Prize, 1978; Canadian Music Competition, First Prize, 1979; International Concert Artist Guild Awards, First Prize and Grand Prize, 1980; Prix Anik Award, Best Movie Soundtrack for Two Men, 1988; Gran Prix du Disque, 1988; Juno Awards, Best Classical Album, Solo or Chamber Ensemble, 1987, 1989; Instrumental Artist of the Year, 1991, 1993, 1994;
Addresses: Management—Robert Cash, 121 Richmond St. W., Ste. 1000, Toronto, Ontario M5H 2K1, Canada. Website—Ofra Harnoy Official Website: http://www.ofraharnoy.com.
"Some of the best work of the great musicians was done in their teens," Harnoy told Paula Citron of Performing Arts in Canada. "This is the age when we have the most energy and it's the best time to do the grind of touring. I also know that female soloists add sensuousness to music while men tend to be more serious and technical." On passing from her youthful vibrancy, Harnoy said to Kaptainis, "Sometimes, when I hear things I did when I was young, I notice things I wish I could do now … I am glad they are held for that moment. Of course, there are things I do now that I couldn't do then, but I never think that I sound 'more mature' now."
Harnoy is as enthralling to watch as she is to listen to. Considered a very theatrical performer, she brings seriousness and passion to her music with a romantic appearance. Her performing style has been described as sensually charged and exotic. Musically, Harnoy describes her technique as 'violinistic,' referring to the unique vibrato she conjures from her cello and the lyric sound quality she is well known for. Partly because of that rich sound, Harnoy's interpretations of the great Romantic classics, including the works of Tchaikovsky and Chopin, have been praised the world over, as have her versions of the entire cello concertos of Vivaldi.
Harnoy has made dozens of recordings and has performed with some of the world's finest musicians. She was named one of 12 Canadians who bring the most credit to Canada internationally by Maclean's in 1987, and at the age of 30 she was named to the Order of Canada. Harnoy is a regular guest of royalty and dignitaries, having accepted invitations more than once to perform for Prince Charles as well as the Emperor and royal family of Japan. Harnoy was asked to play for American President Bill Clinton during his first state visit to Canada, at the invitation of Prime Minister Chretien.
Now that Harnoy is nearing forty, the too-often used label of child prodigy is less appropriate than ever. Harnoy is not considered a phenomenon or oddity to critics anymore, but rightly recognized as a talented soloist and gifted interpreter of music with a huge international following. With the experiences life has given her as an adult, including motherhood, there is more available for a mature, emotional and theatrical performer to draw from.
Ofra Harnoy and the Oxford String Quartet Play the Beatles, 1985.
Salut D'Amour, RCA, 1990.
Vivaldi: 6 Cello Sonatas, RCA, 1994.
Imagine, RCA, 1996.
Ofra Harnoy Collection, Vol. 1, BMG, 1996.
Ofra Harnoy Collection, Vol. 2: Brahms Cello Sonata, RCA, 1996.
Ofra Harnoy Collection, Vol. 3: Piotr Ilich Tchaikovsky & Camille Saint-Saëns, RCA, 1996.
Ofra Harnoy Collection, Vol. 4: Flight of the Bumblebee & Other Virtuoso Showpieces, RCA, 1996.
Ofra Harnoy Collection, Vol. 5: Beethoven Cello Sonatas Nos.2&3, RCA, 1996.
Ofra Harnoy Collection, Vol. 6, RCA, 1996.
Tchaikovsky for Relaxation, BMG, 2000.
Contemporary Canadian Musicians, Gale Group, 1998.
Kallman, Helmut and Potvin, Gilles, editors, Encyclopedia of Music in Canada, University of Toronto Press, 1992.
Globe and Mail, January 4, 1983; March 5, 1991; September 23, 1991; April 27, 1995.
Maclean's, April 26, 1983.
Performing Arts in Canada, Spring 1982; Spring 1985.
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