Greg Harrington doesn’t look like your average classical violinist. When we met at a pub in Manhattan’s Upper West Side on a recent snowy evening, he was wearing a gray hoodie and peppered his conversation with good-natured cussing and colorful stories. But as Ireland’s leading classical violin soloist and crossover artist, he’s toured the world, produced two albums, and performed multiple times at Carnegie Hall. Rather than isolating himself within the classical music community, Harrington makes it his mission to find a way for classical violin to speak to each of his listeners, from high schoolers to Vice President Joe Biden.
“Whether it’s an audience or a child, it’s always about who is listening. You pour everything into the experience that they have. I’m doing the [IA Hall of Fame] event for Joe Biden, and I’m so excited for this because it’s a blank canvas for me, and it’s about creating something that personally connects with everyone in the room and that resonates with him. His great-great-grandfather was a blind fiddler from County Louth. Turlough O’Carolan was a blind Irish composer who composed classical and gypsy, so I’m starting with that. . . . You want to try to make everybody in that room feel that they are the one being played to. It’s got to be about your audience. It’s got to be personal…otherwise, you’re going against what music is. Music on a page is the physical representation of an emotion. In order to emote, you’ve got to connect. That’s what drives me.”
Born in Dublin, Harrington started playing violin at age four. In the beginning, it was one among a number of activities: he was an avid rugby and tennis player. “Rugby is, obviously, not good for the fingers, as I found out once. I was playing and, bang, it just snapped! It was the day before a scholarship exam and I never told Mom or Dad, because I thought they would just absolutely flip. So I’d just go to school, bandage it up with a little splint, and for two months, take it off at the dinner table and just keep my fingers like that and then go upstairs and put the splint back again.” He mimics holding a broken finger straight, then laughs and rolls his eyes a bit. “Oh, the joys of being a highly communicative child.”
From the beginning, his mother was deeply supportive of his interest. “I remember walking by a string quartet playing and I just loved the sound of the violin. I remember tugging on her arm and saying that I wanted to play that. She took me in the very next day to McCullough Pigott, we bought a violin about this high, and I started a month later.” He gestures with his hand to indicate a violin about the size of his wine glass.
Memories of his mother provided a personal inspiration for the most recent of his two albums, A Different World, released in 2011 under his own music label, Estile Records. “I was in Patelson’s Music Store on 57th just behind Carnegie Hall and I came across this piece. What really spoke to me was the way the silence in his music screams, and the passion in his music.” The piece was “Kiss on Wood” by Scottish composer James MacMillan.
“Kiss on Wood,” is representative of walking forth to kiss Christ’s feet on the cross. However, for me, it’s always been about my last conversation with Mom who died in 1995. It goes from angry and confused and just raw emotion to something that evolves and goes into nothingness. It’s that unanswered question.”
While A Different World communicates universal emotions through classical music, Harrington’s first album, Reflections, tells familiar stories through the lens of classic violin. A collection of sixteen encore-style pieces – ranging from the Schindler’s List theme to “Summer-time” – the album serves as a showcase for the breadth of Harrington’s accomplishments. “I’ve got a very eclectic ear. I love everything from jazz to indie. If you’re going to be an instrumentalist, you’ve got to take vocal pieces that everybody knows. . . . You take U2’s “One,” which is an iconic sort of rock lullaby song, and the challenge is how to make that sound as if it was completely written for a violin. So you just strip it down bare…whether it’s ‘One’ or ‘Hallelujah,’ “Purple Haze” or a South American tango, you want to make sure that it sounds organic. There’s nothing worse than playing it and sounding like a classical musician playing it, because you lose everybody. . . . A classical musician must not sound like a classical musician doing tango. He’s got to sound like a South American gypsy. If you’re doing a rendition of ‘Purple Haze,’ you’ve got to sound like Jimi Hendrix. People have got to walk away saying, ‘I never knew a violin could sound like an electric guitar.’ You’ve got to make them almost cry with it. Whether it’s [from] Damien Rice or U2 or Frank Sinatra or Louis Armstrong or Radiohead. I’m doing a beautiful transcription of [Radio-head’s] ‘Karma Police.’ [The band] compose so classically and symphonically.”
Harrington is finishing a third album, coming out this spring. Taking some of Bach’s most famous violin pieces and doing his own arrangements. He sees this as an opportunity to present what amounts to original work rather than as a comparison to other classical musicians who have covered Bach.
“As classical performers, we’re so conditioned to perform something a certain way. This is all about ripping everything out and just putting it bare and raw out there and just – who cares who likes it. That’s the only way you can be completely genuine and faithful, and that’s the only way you have a chance of succeeding: if you can just tear the premise down. I feel an audience needs that human contact with the artist. They need that insight into the personality of the artist, that’s not just coming out of the fingers into the instrument. . . it’s got to be so much more than just the notes on the page.”
Harrington also teaches music, another opportunity to experiment with genre-melding and knowing his audience, as well as an outlet for his belief in the importance of music in school. “I’m an advocate for music in the classroom. Kids never need to pursue a career in music, but learning an instrument is the only discipline where you combine the emotional, the physical and the intellectual. It’s amazing what it does for you. . . its effects on English and math.”
Harrington teaches at the prestigious Spence and Nightingale schools on Manhattan’s Upper East Side, and sees it as an investment in the future of the arts. “My goal is to give kids a love for classical music, to give them a fun aspect about it, something tangible, so when they go to a symphony orchestra, they’ll say, ‘you know something? That makes sense. I know exactly what’s going on.’ Realistically, they’re going to become the funders of the arts. Every class is all about enthusiasm and instilling love in the music. For example, I’m just finishing an arrangement of Adele’s “Sky Fall” for them. You’ve got to give them the Beethoven and the Bach and then their Adele. So they’re exposed to classics, and then they have stuff they can get their teeth into. They have something they can relate to and they have a positive experience.”
Whether it’s starting his own record label to set himself apart from the classical pack, or advocating for music education, Harrington defines his life by his music.
“When I look back in twenty years’ time, I want to say that I had a beautiful journey. . . so many people want a career and they want a career now. A career is something you look back on, and something you reflect upon.
“As Pavarotti said, it’s not always about performing at Carnegie Hall, it’s about singing at a small venue of 10 to 12 people where you learn your craft, and it’s always this journey. It’s always about playing to people, and getting your music across to as many people as possible.”
Watch Greg Harrington’s performance from the 2013 Irish America Hall of Fame luncheon and induction ceremony: