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
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
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
Playing an instrument that was carved around the time Bach
created these masterpieces, Prieto clearly enunciated these
conversations between the upper-register melodies and
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
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
"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
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
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
"I had already cut all my ties with industrial life in
Mexico, and I didn't tell anything to Pierre Fournier,"
"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
"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."