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Associated Press
Friday, November 29, 1996

Carlos Prieto: Around the World With the Cello
By Marin Steinberg, Associated Press Writer

NEW YORK — He travels so much that his Stradivarius cello has a frequent-flier card. He performs 100 concerts a year, from his native Mexico to Argentina, Spain, England, France, Germany, Russia and China. His hours in flight have given him the time to write three books, one a best seller in his native country.

And yet cellist Carlos Prieto is a well-kept secret in the United States. Too bad. This industrialist-turned-musician has something to say and is worth listening to.

At a recent Lincoln Center concert, Prieto said it all through his 276-year-old instrument (known to airlines as Senorita Cello Prieto). He performed a demanding program at Alice Tully Hall of Johann Sebastian Bach's complete cycle of six suites for unaccompanied cello.

The risks of such a program seem obvious. First, it's a question of stamina: How does a single instrumentalist not break down physically during this 2-hour marathon? Then, how does this lonely runner avoid lulling his audience — and himself — into the monotony of six long compositions, all with the same highly structured architecture?

Prieto, who gave up his career as the head of a Mexican iron and steel company to return to his first love, apparently learned the lessons of risk management well at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where he received degrees in engineering and economics. Avoid risks by disciplined restraint and mastering the material.

The 59-year-old cellist, who has performed the premieres of some 50 compositions by contemporary composers, reached back to the fountainhead of cello music and triumphed over its challenges.

Bach was believed to have written the suites while living in Coethen from 1717 to 1723. They may lack the polytonal depth of his solo violin sonatas and partitas, but they do contain complicated "conversations" between the cello's high and low voices.

Playing an instrument that was carved around the time Bach created these masterpieces, Prieto clearly enunciated these conversations between the upper-register melodies and lower-voiced harmonies.

Although their structures are similar — a prelude followed by five dances — each suite has its unique character. The length and level of difficulty increase progressively from the jaunty first through the majestic sixth. That final suite in D is exceptionally tough because Bach wrote it with a galloping pace for an instrument with a fifth string. So reserving the sixth for the sprint to the finish line is especially treacherous.

Prieto followed that path, taking one intermission between No. 3 in C and No. 4 in E-flat, rather than coupling Nos. 2 and 5, 3 and 4, and 1 and 6 with two breaks, as he has done previously.

"I think it's much more interesting to program in order so that the gradual complications, both musically and technically, will become apparent," Prieto said in a pre-concert interview. "And there is a thread that the audience can follow."

The thread began with a fluid tug in the G major suite. Despite a few intonation glitches, Prieto played at a relaxed tempo, as if pacing himself for the start of the marathon. In the wrong hands, this innocent-sounding piece can sound like an exercise, but Prieto's controlled pulse never degenerated into the perfunctory.

In this suite, as in the others, his bow glided along the strings at perfect right angles, his phrasing was breathfully expressive, his trills were crisp in the sarabande movements and his spidery fingers on the left hand (and sometimes even his patent-leather shoes) danced in the final gigues.

Prieto started playing the cello at age 4. His parents were amateur musicians, playing in a string quartet with his uncle and grandfather. When Carlos was born, his uncle, the cellist, had moved to France. So Carlos' parents got him a violin-sized cello.

Carlos continued studying the instrument through high school, but having a gift for math and physics, he went to MIT for college. He eventually became chairman of a Mexican iron and steel company, but after 10 years returned to music.

After practicing hours and hours a day for three to four months, he went to Switzerland to study with famed cellist Pierre Fournier.

"I had already cut all my ties with industrial life in Mexico, and I didn't tell anything to Pierre Fournier," Prieto recalled.

"I told him, 'Would you think it's absolutely insane if I try to become a full-time cellist?' He told me, 'Well, play Schumann, play this, play Bach.' And after two or three hours, he told me, 'Fine, go ahead. Go ahead.' And I told him, 'Well, I am very happy to hear that because I already have taken the decision.' He told me, 'What would you have done if I had recommended no?' I said my decision was already the same."

Later, Prieto went to New York and studied with Leonard Rose before embarking on his new career.

His touring has taken him all over the world. He has visited the former Soviet Union many times, starting in 1962, when he encountered an old family friend, Igor Stravinsky, during a rare return to the exiled Russian composer's motherland. Months before, Stravinsky attended a bullfight with the Prieto family in Mexico.

Prieto's three books, written in Spanish, chronicle his journeys. His most recent, "From the USSR to Russia: Three Decades of Observations From a Witness," was a best seller in Mexico three years ago.

Prieto is currently writing a book on Latin American classical music, having commissioned numerous cello pieces by the region's composers.

He also still has time for the family quartet, now in its third generation with his brother, son and nephew as the other members.

"Of the 100 performances I play a year, maybe six or seven are with the Prieto String Quartet," he said. "It's a very fulfilling experience because you not only enjoy the music, but you have very good family life."