Just the mere thought of interviewing world-renowned violinist Gregory Harrington put a song in my heart. He is, after all, an acclaimed virtuoso who debuted his considerable talents in New York’s prestigious Carnegie Hall 20 years ago to rave reviews, and continues to disarm and charm audiences with his spellbinding renditions of classic compositions and contemporary songs. His is a career of passion, a childhood dream come true and a life’s calling that has become infinitely richer with time.
I had the pleasure of speaking with him a few weeks before his 20th Anniversary concert at Carnegie Hall, a not surprisingly sold-out performance in a celebrated venue where all the greats aspire to play. Since it opened in 1891, Carnegie Hall has set the standard for musical excellence and has showcased the world’s finest artists, from Tchaikovsky and Bartók to Gershwin, Garland, the Beatles and more. Legendary violinist Isaac Stern not only graced Carnegie Hall with more than 250 performances, its main auditorium was named in his honor after he led a campaign to save the building from destruction back in the 1960s. Israeli-American virtuoso violinist Itzhak Perlman has played here countless times since 1963; his name is emblazoned on the stage in 2,804 seat Stern Auditorium.
Benny Goodman brought swing to Carnegie in 1938. Duke Ellington debuted jazz in the hallowed hall in 1943. Frank Sinatra crooned love songs to bobbysoxer audiences in 1945 and Judy Garland wowed the crowd in 1961. Dave Brubeck recorded a highly acclaimed live jazz album in Carnegie in 1963. Rock and roll greats rocked the Hall too, the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, the Byrds, the Doors, Led Zeppelin, Neil Young and more among them, appealing to a younger audience who screamed their adoration to their musical idols. As testament to his violin versatility, in addition to honoring classical compositions with skillful reverence, Gregory honors their music in creative violin arrangements that never fail to inspire new audiences.
“Any time you perform live, you get just a moment to take the audience member on a journey.”
Isaac Stern once famously remarked “Everywhere in the world, music enhances a hall, with one exception: Carnegie Hall enhances the music.” When Gregory first strolled on stage in Carnegie’s intimate Weill Recital Hall with his prized violin in hand on February 17, 2003, he was the first Irish violinist to play a full-length solo debut there. His music was classical, his delivery exceptional. He has returned to play Carnegie Hall several times since, wowing his audiences with performances that not only enhanced his music, but enriching it in ways that made him a favorite of music aficionados of all genres and interests.
“Any time you perform live, you get just a moment to take the audience member on a journey. If I have one person that I can change through my music, then it’s job done. I spend years trying to create a very authentic experience for the listener through my visual lens. Every note has to capture their imagination and make a connection. If I can bring the emotion that I feel into the piece that I’m going to play and find those moments where you just want to tell the story, you let perfection go. It’s about pure emotion for me and the concertgoers. That’s when you create a very unique audience experience.”
Greg told me that it’s difficult to make that personal connection outside of a live performance, but I beg to differ. Before we spoke, I dutifully did my research. I read articles and poured through interviews, clicking on his music links to hear what his audiences rave about. I listened to his classical arrangements – he channels Bach, Beethoven, Brahms and Mozart and more with virtuoso precision and crossed over into his modern-day compositions, jazz, blues, haunting movie scores and traditional American music among them, giving new voice to works by legendary songwriters. While doing so, I became entranced, engaged and not a little soul seduced, wanting not to keep this discovery all to myself, but to show it off where the world could listen. If he had the power to move me on my computer, imagine what it would be like to hear him in person.
I think a live experience is something to be treasured,” he said, explaining that so many people today are intent on capturing life through the lens of their phone, chronicling moments in digital takes that are better experienced with eyes and heart open. “They miss the absolute magic of the moment when they view concerts simply through videos. You can’t feel the tangible electricity that’s in the room when you’re not there.”
And tangible experiences for his audiences are his goal.
“No matter what song I do, whether it’s Johnny Cash or Nine Inch Nails or Puccini, it’s about holding the audience member with the longest line possible to grab their attention and not letting go until the very last note. I strive to deliver the absolute best representation of the love a composer has for the emotion he’s feeling when he writes a piece. My job is to recreate that emotion in its purest sense.”
To that end, Harrington spends years arranging and rearranging the pieces he chooses for his performances, listening to songs that inspire him a hundred times and then a hundred times more, owning notes that surprise, seduce and soothe with a seamless change of his bow and slowing down his delivery to make that unforgettable, ultimately confident connection with his audience.
“It’s all about preparation and visualization. I play a piece over and over again until I can play it perfectly six times in a row before I feel good enough to include it in a concert. If I mess up on the fifth time, I have to start again and keep going until I get it right all six times.”
It takes stamina to do what he does in every concert, along with the confidence that comes with knowing you’re prepared to perform your best. “I will never confuse stage fright with butterflies when, for example, the main door of Carnegie Hall opens and you walk out there with the feeling that you own the space. If you’re not prepared, though, you’ll have nerves. I think the most powerful feeling was standing on stage in the main hall in Carnegie and just before I began to play, I had the unconscious realization that every idol I’ve ever had musically has stood right where I was standing.”
“It’s all about preparation and visualization. I play a piece over and over again until I can play it perfectly six times in a row before I feel good enough to include it in a concert”.
There’s an oft-told story about what it takes to get to Carnegie Hall. I’m over-simplifying it here but it goes something like this. A woman, lost in New York City, happened upon violinist Jascha Heifetz –who not only happens to be Gregory’s longtime idol, he was his teacher’s, Erick Friedman’s, teacher – and asked him how to get to Carnegie Hall. He famously replied, “Practice, practice, practice.”
Which Gregory, like so many who have risen to the top of their game, does relentlessly, regularly and repeatedly. He started playing the violin when he was four years old, after hearing an unexpected string quartet at an Irish horse show in his hometown of Dublin. He was drawn to the sound of the violin and spent his youth learning how to play it at the Royal Irish Academy. He took lessons every Saturday, from nine until six, playing with an accompanist, studying theory, ear training, music history and tackling technique and technical nuances until he could make his instrument sing with every stroke of the bow.
He entered his first competition when he was about 10, winning the top prize for his efforts.
“Bear in mind,” he told me, “I was probably the only entrant. I played this really ambitious piece and although I bludgeoned it, I absolutely loved performing. At 10, I think I was just feeling the raw passion and it thrilled me. It wasn’t until I was 27 performing with a major orchestra when for the very first time, everything absolutely clicked. Ironically, I played the same piece that night with the orchestra. I remember feeling that everything completely slowed down and I was in control of the space. I could feel the room, talk, tell a story, make them laugh.”
For the last twenty years, he’s been doing just that. He has starred in concert halls and landmark venues around the world, jet setting across oceans from one continent to the next, transforming lives and touching hearts with his music, one audience and countless fans at a time. He’s played the national anthem for thousands in the Green Bay Packers’ Lambeau Field, and millions more heard him play when he appeared on NBC’s TV broadcast of New York City’s St. Patrick’s Day parade. Through his music, he’s met and entertained all living Irish presidents, US Presidents Biden and Clinton, celebrities and heads of state, from the United Nations to the White House, showcasing his music in the kind of intimate moments that inspired a then Vice President Biden to remark, “if I had your talent, I would be president.” But it was his invitation to perform for the Irish Rugby Team at Soldiers Field that literally moved Gregory to tears.
Some of the rugby players had seen me perform at a corporate event and asked me to play for the squad on the eve of the performance. The IRFU (Irish Rugby Football Union) asked me to play the Irish National Anthem at Soldiers Field for their highly anticipated match against the New Zealand All Blacks. I am a rugby fanatic so for me this was utopia and probably the most nervous I felt for any performance. The Irish Rugby Team beat the All Blacks that day for first time in our history in 111 years. It was a momentous day on many levels not the least of which was the anthem itself. There is something incredibly powerful about 65,000 people singing your national anthem while you play the violin.”
There’s also something incredibly empowering about touching that one person with your music, especially when it’s your own father. Gregory’s dad attended so many of his son’s performances no matter where in the world they took him.
“He was this beacon of enthusiasm who loved the music and showed me that you can define what you want to be and just be it. It was phenomenal. He was old school and would write personal notes to people he met as he was traveling to my concerts. I, in turn, would sometimes hear from those people who told me how much my dad enjoyed those concerts and the beautiful moments they held. I remember every seat he sat in before he passed away and I feel him still every time I walk out on to a stage.”
“That’s what life is really all about; it’s about those beautiful moments that touch someone, now and forever,” he said.
If you are lucky enough to score tickets to one of Gregory’s performances, you’ll experience a lifetime of beautiful moments in just one evening. From classical masterpieces that have wowed royalty to traditional Irish music, American jazz, alternative rock and more, he is redefining everything you thought you knew a violinist could do. Lean in as he whispers stringed songs that seduce your soul. Tune in as you recognize popular works by legendary songwriters and singers like Johnny Cash, Bob Dylan, Taylor Swift and U2. Succumb to evocative solos that cross new musical boundaries to take your breath away. And remember where you were when an extraordinary Irish violinist changed your perception of music forever.
Presented by the Irish Repertory Theatre, Gregory Harrington’s 20th Anniversary concert in Carnegie Hall on February 16, 2023, journeyed from the violin and piano repertoire of Brahms and Bazzini to arrangements for strings and percussion originally performed by Led Zepplin and the Cranberries with additional works from Brubeck, Piazzolla, Reinhardt, Chopin and more. Like all of his performances, it was a night to remember with music you’ll not easily forget.
About the Artist
Gregory Harrington is a Dublin-born Irish violinist who has performed as a soloist to international renown with esteemed orchestras and conductors in concert halls around the world. Schooled in violin in Ireland, the United Kingdom and the United States, he has taught Masterclasses in conservatories and universities in Mexico, China, Shanghai and Columbia. When he is not practicing or performing, he teaches violin, motivational speaking and musical leadership throughout the United States, using his performance expertise to inspire presentation excellence for a variety of clientele. A Billboard charting artist, in 2006 he founded Estile Records where he has released six critically acclaimed albums to date. Current projects include penning a book entitled Melodic Leadership. ☐