Then and now: 5-time Juno winner Ofra Harnoy is making a comeback
After overcoming a devastating injury, the beloved cellist returns to the concert stage
"I thought the bow was going to fall out of my hand, the pain was so intense by the end."
It was 2011 and cellist Ofra Harnoy was playing a recital with pianist Anton Kuerti. "I remember trying to sign an autograph afterward and I couldn't hold the pencil. That's when I knew: 'Oh, my goodness. I'm not going to type-A-personality myself through this. This is serious.'" And it was.
Harnoy had an acute shoulder injury. "I think it was a delayed reaction to all the years of touring," she explained to us recently by phone from her Toronto home. "When I finally had an MRI they didn't understand how I could even use my arm because every single tendon was shredded, I guess from years of overuse."
Those years of overuse began in 1980 when, at the age of 15, the Israeli-born Canadian cellist burst on the scene with her rich tone and impassioned stage presence. She was greeted as the cello's next big thing, and she lived up to the hype: Over the ensuing 18 years she would perform recitals and concertos around the world (including international tours with the London Philharmonic and the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra) and release more than 40 albums. Between 1987 and '94, she was nominated for six Juno Awards, winning five.
"I was known for doing 16-hour recording sessions, day after day. I had the drive," she reflects.
"I felt very privileged to travel extensively and meet so many fascinating people and learn a lot about history and art and literature, just by exploring the world." Harnoy was living the dream and threw herself into it with abandon.
"Once I got immersed in the music, I didn't listen to my body," she recalls. "I was pushing myself beyond the physical demands. I should have known more about how to preserve my shoulder, preserve my health. There was no education when I was going to school about how to maintain your health and your physical endurance."
Luckily, Harnoy avoided injury at the time, possibly because she opted to slow down her concert activity in the late '90s and 2000s to raise a son and daughter. "I actually had a whole system where one of the children stayed home with my mother and the other came on tour with me. It kind of worked out, but it had to be a very small amount of touring because that's very difficult on the kids." She also devoted time to caring for her mother, who became sick with cancer.
"When I started to come back to playing, that's when I had the issue with my shoulder, which was really quite horrific for me because I don't think I had gone a day without playing since I was five-and-a-half."
Consultations ensued. "I tried everything: therapy, platelet injections, osteopathy and, you know, everything they could possibly try to rehabilitate the shoulder." Surgery, the last resort, occurred in 2015, and recovery has been slow but successful.
"I started very carefully, playing two minutes a day, five minutes a day, and built up to now and I'm playing at a normal performance level," she confirms. "I have a trainer who works with me to strengthen the counter-muscles around the shoulder, I have a physiotherapist, and I understand the body so much better, so it's a completely different approach to maintaining my strength and staying strong for many years. I feel absolutely no pain. I actually feel stronger than I did in most of my later touring."
So strong, in fact, that Harnoy has decided she's ready to return to the concert stage.
Mirvish Productions has announced An Evening with Ofra Harnoy, her comeback concert set to take place Saturday, Nov. 17, at Toronto's Ed Mirvish Theatre. Harnoy will be joined by an orchestra, gospel choir and a number of musical guests, all under the direction of David Andrew Rogers.
"It's an amazing feeling," Harnoy says.
"I've been a fan of Ofra Harnoy for many years," says David Mirvish via press release. "I remember receiving my Order of Canada at the same time as Ofra. Running into her recently at the opening night of one of our shows, I was reminded how much I've missed seeing her perform. I am honoured that she has taken me up on my invitation to launch this new phase of her remarkable career at one of our theatres." For tickets and further information, head over here.