Ofra Harnoy’s grateful evolution
Celebrated cellist played on The Mask and Mirror and in concert with Loreena

Ofra Harnoy is considered one of the greatest cellists in the world. She’s performed on five continents, played for Prince Charles (before he was King Charles III), for former president Bill Clinton, three Canadian prime ministers and the Imperial Japanese family. She was playing at Carnegie Hall by age 17. She’s won five Juno Awards, France’s Grand Prix du Disque, multiple Critics Choice Awards and she’s a Member of The Order of Canada. She has nearly 50 solo albums and her repertoire is unimaginably vast.

But for 15 long years she didn’t play a note.

Between five years of caring for her late mother, who had leukemia, and severing her shoulder tendons, which led to reconstructive surgery and a long recovery, a decade-and-a-half had passed with her cello silent. She admits she thought she might never play again.

The unforeseen tragedies of life are known to upend a career, a plan, a life, yet Ofra Harnoy has proven she can not only bounce back from adversity and profound loss, but also reclaim her exceptional musicality, her life and embrace a new vision going forward.  

“In some ways I’m in the best place ever,” she confided recently from her home in St. John’s, Newfoundland.

Ofra made her comeback from the 15-year hiatus in a 2018 concert. With a full orchestra, she performed a massive musical program, shocking herself at how ready she actually was. “I felt so strong I thought I could do it all over again right then.” Those difficult years away from playing also altered her perspective. “It gives you a new sense of gratitude and appreciation. I now also do a lot of self-care and maintain the muscles I need to play… I practice every day. You have to keep the muscles and endurance going. Maintaining the technique is the means to get to the musical communication.”

On June 1st she also celebrated her fifth wedding anniversary with her husband, fellow musician, producer and composer Mike Herriott, an award-winning Canadian trumpeter. The two had first met in Toronto back in 1982, fell in love and in unusual circumstances fell apart. They both went on to marry other people. Both later divorced. But in the summer of 2017 Ofra and Mike reconnected in a strange twist of fate and realized it was a misunderstanding that originally drove them apart and that the spark was still burning bright 35 years on. They were married two years later, then moved to Newfoundland where Mike had spent part of his youth. They began building a new life on ‘the rock’, making music in their home studio and performing together. They were highly compatible as partners, but were shocked to realize how in tune they were musically.

“We couldn’t believe the magic when we played together,” says Ofra. “We didn’t know we had that chemistry and we’ve discovered we love making music together.” The couple has produced five albums in their studio, including On the Rock, a selection of songs, jigs and reels that Ofra feels reflect her love and understanding of Newfoundland culture, recorded during the height of the pandemic. In contrast, their 2023 album Portraitis a collection of what she describes as “the kind of songs you sing in the shower, or while you’re cooking”. It includes some of the couple’s favourite pieces by George Gershwin, Leonard Bernstein, Tchaikovsky and others. For “a teasing taste,” Ofra points to her website or YouTube channel.

In another fortuitous twist of fate, a recording Ofra had done of Edward Elgar’s Cello Concerto back in 1995 at Abbey Road Studios in London, England was discovered 26 years after it had been presumed lost. It was remastered and released in 2023.Perhaps best known as a classical cellist, her musical prowess allows her to cross genres seemingly effortlessly. Over the years Ofra has collaborated with a broad range of musicians, including Sting, PlácidoDomingo and Alan Doyle, of Great Big Sea.

She has also performed with Loreena. They first met over 30 years ago. “I don’t remember the exact date, but we hit it off instantly,” says Ofra. “I love her music and we had an incredible connection.” She accompanied Loreena on “The Lady of Shalott” at the 1992 Juno Awards where Loreena won Best Roots/Traditional Album for The Visit, plus she played cello on Loreena’s ground-breaking 1994 recording, The Mask and Mirror, on the song “The Two Trees”.

“It was wonderful to bring such an accomplished cellist as Ofra into our world,” says Loreena. “Her playing is itself other worldly and rich with feeling. I was just listening the other day to ‘The Two Trees’ and the delicacy with which she plays reaches into the soul.”

The Mask and Mirror has since been celebrated for its unique blend of Celtic, Spanish and Moroccan influences. It’s also just been released as a live recording based on a 1994 performance in San Francisco captured for radio syndication in the U.S. and Canada. And in celebration, this summer Loreena is off to Greece, Turkey, Spain, Germany and Italy on The Mask and Mirror 30th Anniversary Tour.

Ofra hasn’t been touring recently, but says plans are in the works for 2025. Meanwhile, she and Mike will be performing together on July 28th in Stratford, Ontario, Loreena’s home base, as part of Stratford Summer Music.

The months ahead will be busy ones for the couple. They’re planning to move back to Toronto in the fall to be closer to their adult children, who live in the city and surrounding area. (They each have two.) Ofra says they’ve loved living in beautiful Newfoundland. The people, the quiet lifestyle, the hiking and kayaking – especially during the enforced isolation of COVID – have all been gifts with benefits. They’re vegans, do yoga together and are both devoted to the daily exercises that maintain the musical muscles they need to play. Says Ofra, “our new alone is being together, but we have a very disciplined life”.

While Ofra Harnoy’s personal world and music have both evolved, a few things have remained unchanged.

“I’ve always been very open about my life experiences. And every time I perform, or I’m in the studio, I give 100 per cent. I’m completely vulnerable and communicate with my heart and soul.”

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Written by Diane Sewell, a career journalist for more than 30 years. In addition to working with Loreena for 20 years, she has also written for the Globe and Mail, Toronto Star and assorted consumer magazines. She is also the author of several commissioned books.