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Interview: Carlos Prieto -- Musician turned Engineer, turned Musician

By Thomas Chen
Staff Reporter

MIT has turned out its fair share of great scientists, engineers, and industrialists. However, producing world-class artists is not something for which MIT is particularly known. Cellist Carlos Prieto '58 is of that rare breed who came to MIT to study economics and materials science and engineering but eventually found himself in some of the great concert halls of the world.

He has shared the concert stage with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, the Berlin Symphony Orchestra, the Moscow Chamber Orchestra, the Spanish National Orchestra, and many others. I was privileged to have a chance to interview Prieto in preparation for a lecture, or "conversation" as he prefers to call it, on J.S. Bach's 6 Suites for Cello Solo (c.1720) and the history of his own Stradivarius instrument from that time (affectionately dubbed "Senorita Cello Prieto"). The lecture is scheduled for Wednesday, 57 p.m., in Killian Hall.

Although Mr. Prieto is from a musical family, I learned that MIT actually played a crucial role in his development as a cellist. "I started playing the cello when I was about four or five years old It was a tradition in my family of playing as a string quartet. When I was born, in my family there were two amateur violin players, my father and my mother; and an amateur viola player was my grandfather. And they were lacking a cellist to complete a family string quartet. And because of this I started playing the cello and it happened that I fell in love with it."

As Prieto progressed through school he soon discovered that he had talents outside of music. "When I was about 16 years old it happened that I was also relatively good in mathematics. I was not really sure of what my real vocation was [going to be]. So I tried to enter MIT and I was accepted."

Prieto found the Institute to be a musically rewarding place. Despite MIT's austere and artistically uncreative reputation, Mr. Prieto found time to study engineering and academics while continuing his musical activities as a cellist. "I was very interested in two courses: Course III and Course XIV. While I was at MIT I kept playing because I was a member of the MIT orchestra. They [also] had me as a soloist in the Haydn D major concerto. I would also play a lot of chamber music Almost every weekend I would play."

Prieto also learned Russian. "When I was at MIT, I became very interested in Russian music. I think I heard most of the recordings that were available at the music library. And I became so interested in Russian music that I started studying Russian, and I took all the available Russian courses at MIT at that time. Some years later, I went to Russia and I attended a full term at the University of Moscow, studying Russian."

After graduating with his two degrees, Prieto returned to Mexico and eventually ascended to a position heading an iron and steel company.

"When I was at MIT, I was too busy trying to study all the subjects. I couldn't think whether I had to be trained in music. But whenever I had a vacation, whenever I had a chance to think a little about what I was doing, a thought would come to my mind that I had traded my real vocation After several years of work in the iron industry in Mexico, I became the head of a company, and of course, I was busy. After 10 or 12 years of work, I decided that either I went back to the cello or I would never be able to do this and I would be sorry for the rest of my life."

Prieto returned to the cello, and the cello literature has benefited from his advocacy of 20th Century music for cello. Since 1980, he has premiered over 50 new compositions which feature the cello as a solo instrument. "I've been trying to enlarge the cello repertoire of the Spanish speaking world not only the Spanish, but also the Portuguese. I've been involved with composers from Spain, Mexico, Argentina, Chile, Puerto Rico, the United States, and Cuba."

As a performer, Prieto is known by contemporary composers and concert hall audiences. Recently he has embarked on a project that will expand his audience base at schools. Prieto has committed his time to the Young Audiences program which seeks to bring classical music back into the classroom. "I admire tremendously the work they're doing, in getting people to know and learn music. Because of this, I have agreed to work with Young Audiences one of them would be a school where there is a majority of Spanish speaking students, probably from Puerto Rico, Colombia, Argentina, Mexico. I'm sure a lot of these students have not had a lot of access to classical music." For Prieto speaking to children is a delight as he is given an opportunity to make a big impression on their artistic perceptions. "The biggest challenge is to connect to the students and awaken their interest."

On Wednesday Sept. 24, Prieto will give a lecture in Killian Hall. His co-star will be his cello, Senorita Cello Prieto. "I will be speaking about the six Bach suites with examples from the suites - how Bach evolved the composition over the six suites. I might also speak somewhat about my cello because it so happens that the exact date of composition of the suites is not known."

In addition to the cello suites, Prieto hopes also to discuss his frequent travelling companion, his cello. "1720 is the date of my Stradivarius cello. I got this cello about 20 years ago, and ever since I got this cello, I've been very much interested in discovering its history. Like a detective, going back in time and finding out where the cello has been, what adventures it had had. And after 20 years of searching, I've been able to have a good idea of almost 280 years of history of this instrument. During those almost 280 years, many very interesting things have happened to this cello. In fact, I have finished a book in which the central part of this book is a biography of my cello."

The "conversation," as Mr. Prieto likes to call the Wednesday night event, should be of interest to MIT students from all backgrounds. "My conversation or lecture would not be designed for a musician. It would be highly accessible. Any musical terms or musical examples would be given with the cello. I hope it would be extremely accessible to even people who have absolutely no musical background. We will speak about the history of the Bach suites or about the history of an object which was born in the times of Bach (which specifically is my cello) and the adventures it has had. [This] does not require a specialist."

Even though Prieto is a member of the MIT Visiting Committee for Music and Theater Arts, he treasures the times that he can spend in Boston. "For me, it's always a great thrill to go back to Boston, especially to MIT because I recall with great pleasure my days there. For me, my stay at MIT was very important not only because of what I learned in engineering or economics, but also because of what I learned in music and other things, like Russian. When I was there, it was a very important scientific language.

Because of Prieto's MIT education and access to studies in Russian, he was able to secure an opportunity for study in Russia and thereby encounter Igor Stravinsky during his historic return in 1962. "Once I discovered he was in Russia, I went to see him. And he invited me to all his concerts and all his rehearsals." An incredible privilege by anyone's standards. Without MIT, Prieto's musical career might have turned out very differently. Indeed, it will be a true privilege for the MIT and Boston community to have him over the next week.