ICS EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEW!!!
Carter Brey was appointed Principal Cellist of the New York Philharmonic in 1996. He rose to international attention in 1981 as a prizewinner in the Rostropovich International Cello Competition. Subsequent appearances with Rostropovich and the National Symphony Orchestra were unanimously praised. The winner of the Gregor Piatigorsky Memorial Prize, Avery Fisher Career Grant, the Young Concert Artists’ Michaels Award and other honors, he also was the first musician to win the Arts Council of America’s Performing Arts Prize. Mr. Brey has appeared as soloist with virtually all the major orchestras in the United States, and has performed under the batons of Claudio Abbado, Semyon Bychkov, Sergiu Comissiona, Christoph von Dohnanyi, and other prominent conductors. In 1990, he was featured in a concert with cellist Yo-Yo Ma at Avery Fisher Hall that was broadcast via "Live From Lincoln Center." His chamber-music career is equally distinguished; he has made regular appearances with the Tokyo and Emerson string quartets as well as the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center, the Spoleto festivals in the U.S. and Italy, and the Santa Fe Chamber Music and La Jolla Chamber Music festivals, among many others. He partakes in an ongoing, acclaimed series of duo recitals with pianist Christopher O’Riley. Together they have recorded "The Latin American Album," a disc of compositions from South America and Mexico by Helicon Records. Another Brey CD, on Decca’s Argo label, features violinist Pamela Frank and violist Paul Neubauer in Aaron Jay Kernis’ "Still Movement with Hymn." Mr. Brey was educated at the Peabody Institute, where he studied with Laurence Lesser and Stephen Kates, and at Yale University, where he studied with Aldo Parisot, and where he was a Wardell Fellow and a Houpt Scholar.
TJ: Rumor has it that you started unusually late on the cello, especially considering your tremendous achievements in the music profession. Is this true?
CB: Yes. I started playing the cello in the public school system when I was 12 years old, but I didn't start taking private lessons until I was 16. I didn't evince any particular interest or talent for the instrument until I was about 15, and then I suddenly became very, very interested. I had a rather remarkable string teacher at John Jay High School in upper Westchester County, New York, who had several of us work on some very difficult chamber music. It was way over our heads but it served to stimulate and challenge us to become better players. It was the Schubert Quintet that suddenly made me feel that I couldn't live without music, though this may have been as much due to the onslaught of hormones as anything else.
This experience inspired me to study with a private teacher, which is when I started to take the cello very seriously, practically overnight. I immediately started a regimen of scales, arpeggios, and open string exercises and practiced for hours every day. I would practice early in the morning before school and at night before I did my homework. I wish I had that much time to practice now!
TJ: Laurence Lesser was your first teacher in college. Did he tend to emphasize technical issues, or did he concentrate on music like his former teacher, Piatigorsky?
CB: His approach varied with each student. He is also trained as a mathematician and he has a very analytical mind, in addition to having a wonderful ability to use the English language, so I took to his style like a duck to water.
He was very technically oriented with me, almost exclusively so. When I came to him as a freshman, I'd only been studying the cello for two years. I was in desperate need of a solid technical foundation, so he put me on a steady diet of Popper etudes and other technical exercises for the next two years. His most valuable gift was showing me how to think for myself in order to find solutions to technical problems in a non-dogmatic manner. Of course he had his own approach -- every mature artist does -- but he was not rigid about it and he tried to present his ideas in terms of problem-solving. He was the perfect teacher for me at the time.
TJ: Are there any principles that he emphasized that you now deviate from?
CB: One example I recall is that he used a rather shallow bow grip, more in the fingertips, and that he used the second finger of his bow hand to brace his index finger as he pronated his wrist. I evolved away from this approach and went more towards the Rostropovich model, a very deep, "sloppier" bow grip, where the stick is held more in the palm, which helped me to get the sound I wanted.
I don't mean to say that I hold the bow one way for everything. If I am playing something that is very delicate, I use a shallower grip, more in the fingertips. If I am playing something that is broad and lyrical, I use a deeper grip with the paintbrush technique, where the fingertips lag behind the wrist in order to smooth out the bow changes.
TJ: Does the fourth finger come more into play when you're playing more heavily?
CB: No, quite the opposite, actually. I use it in softer playing to balance the bow. I don't need it as much when I'm playing loudly.
TJ: After Laurence Lesser, you studied with Stephen Kates. He was a student of Piatigorsky, too.
CB: Yes, Kates came from the same tradition, which was great because there was continuity between the two. He took over when Lesser left to teach at the New England Conservatory. It was a relatively seamless change for me.
TJ: Did both Kates and Lesser encourage you to explore your own musical ideas, or did they point to Piatigorsky as the ideal musical model?
CB: They would try that on occasion, but the truth is that I was much more interested in pianists at the time. Cello music tended to bore me, actually. I've always been much more interested in studying the music-making of people like Arthur Schnabel, Leon Fleisher, and Sviatislav Richter, because music for piano is simply much greater, and has more contrapuntal interest. Pianists tend to think vertically, an approach that I have always found to be much more engaging than obsessing on a single cello line or dwelling upon the minutiae of cello playing. The greatest influences on my musical thinking have always been pianists.
TJ: You didn't grow up worshipping Casals and playing his recording of the Bach Suites over and over again?
CB: No, I didn't. He is an another example of a great original mind, a genius-level talent. It's a double-edged sword if you try to emulate somebody like Casals. He was such a profound and yet individualistic musician.
I feel fortunate that I took a non-traditional path in my cellistic life. I feel that I got to experience the standard repertoire with uniquely fresh eyes and ears. Rather than having the standard cello recordings internalized by the time I was 18 to the point that I mindlessly played music based on the echoes of other cellists, I more or less played music based on what the score actually said. I also didn't grow up with the usual International/Leonard Rose editions, so I didn't grow up thinking that his highly personalized fingerings and bowings were gospel. I was much more interested in reading the scores for Mozart piano concerti, which may have been better musical training than I would have gotten if I had taken the traditional path.
TJ: You then studied with Aldo Parisot in graduate school at Yale.
CB: Yes, after taking a small break to work on my tan in Florida, I landed at Yale because my piano trio was awarded a chamber music residency. Working with Aldo Parisot proved to be an extremely interesting experience because he was so different from all of my previous teachers. He was perhaps more comparable to Janos Starker in terms of his systematic approach to cello technique, being particularly helpful with issues of the left hand. He taught me how to shift and how to integrate shifting technique even into scale passages. I would say that I finally became a mature cellist in the year I spent with him and in the two years I spent immediately afterwards as a player in the Cleveland Orchestra, where I had a chance to sort out and experiment with the tremendous amount of information he shared with me.
TJ: You described Lesser as very analytical, so how did his approach differ from Parisot's?
CB: They were both analytical, but they emphasized different aspects of cello playing. Lesser was much more interested in talking about sound production and the bow. It's not that he neglected the left hand, it's just that Parisot's ideas about the left hand have stayed with me.
TJ: What were Parisot's ideas about shifting?
CB: He introduced me to the concept of preparatory motions, like rotating my elbow before shifting upwards. He also emphasized the notion that shifts come in many flavors, having varying degrees of anticipation or delay, and varying degrees of audible slide, depending on the needs of the music, which applied to stepwise intervals as well as to wide intervals. I learned how to tailor shifts to the rhythm or character of a musical phrase much more than I had done before.
My time with Parisot coincided with my becoming intensely interested in Rostropovich's style of playing, which I had not really studied before. I discovered that Slava incorporated a lot of these same shifting principles into his own playing, and that he had a very wide palette of shifts and slides. I therefore had a wonderful model to learn from while I studied with Parisot.
TJ: How does one shift "in character" with the music?
CB: When shifting between two notes, many cellists tend to be on the late and fast side, which may serve musical purposes at times, though it often doesn't. This kind of shifting is more utilitarian, merely getting from point A to point B, since it is but one of an infinite number of ways of going between two notes. It's better if you can more consciously decide how much of a slide you want to hear. If you want to hear more of a broad-reaching kind of slide, don't shift so late; leave the first note earlier so that there's a more vocal effect in getting to the goal note. For wonderful examples of this, listen to the great singers, like Jessye Norman and Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, who were also great influences on my development.
TJ: You mentioned that Rostropovich was a strong influence. Did you end up trying to imitate his playing, perhaps trying to match what he did in his recordings?
CB: Certainly. One of the ways we all learn is through imitation. The important thing is to stop imitating at a certain point or you'll forever remain an instrumental or musical adolescent. It's important that you eventually go through a quasi-Oedipal phase, in which you break the bonds with your heroes so that you find out who you are as an individual. You can't be satisfied with just trying to emulate some role model, since he or she is an original talent in his or her own right, and deserves to have his or her uniqueness honored, not cloned. You must find your own voice after awhile.
TJ: Do you believe that understanding music theory is necessary to play well?
CB: Absolutely. I'm quite rabid about this subject and I'm constantly surprised at the low level of theoretical understanding of some of my colleagues. Understanding theory is essential to becoming a complete musician, which jazz musicians know intuitively. It also helps with sight-reading.
It's important that one try to think like a composer if one wants to understand a piece. Without a very conscious grasp of harmony, and the ability to hear a score vertically, how can one comprehend the structure of a work? Without this understanding, you are playing blindly.
When I taught, I would spend as much time at the piano as I would with my cello. This forced my students to look at scores and hear harmonically. I was trying to make them hear like pianists instead of cellists. For example, I once told a student that he was using the wrong color for a plagal cadence, since it should be more devotional in character; the motion is not from I to V to I, it's from I to IV and then back to I, which has a much different connotation.
TJ: What do you think about the following statement: "I don't care about the score when the spirit moves me"?
CB: That's the kind of anti-intellectualism that passes for a point of view. It's more like an excuse for ignorance as far as I'm concerned.
TJ: What do you think of Jacqueline du Pré's alleged statement, "When a composer writes a piece, it's his; when I play it, it's mine"?
CB: I can relate to this statement. Everybody brings who they are to their music-making, and you have to inhabit a piece in order to put it across to an audience convincingly. We all claim to at least have as a goal the realization of a composer's intention, but this is not achievable, strictly speaking, since we aren't mind-readers. If we did happen to play exactly as the composer intended, it would be pure coincidence.
TJ: When you are performing, you are presumably drawing upon your own creativity and the energy of the moment to create the best performance you can. At a time like this, it is possible that you may have an impulse to do something that is not indicated in the score, or even do something that directly contradicts the composer's instructions. What's more important -- the score or the inspiration of the moment?
CB: When studying the music of great artists, like Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, and Schubert, who were much more gifted musicians than the rest of us, I assume that they knew what they were doing and I do my best to follow the score as best as I understand it. Artur Schnabel once said that, the very moment in which you find something in a score that you don't understand or that seems inexplicable or mistaken, if it's in a score by one of these great composers, this is the moment when you should start to look very carefully, because it may be one of those moments where they are achieving a kind of transcendence that you are not capable of in your assumptions. Ultimately, we may decide that we just can't make something work, we can't justify it, or we just don't understand it, which is perfectly fine, but we need to make that extra effort as an homage to these great musicians.
TJ: But what if you've done all your homework and you feel you understand perfectly what the composer intended, but you decide to do something different anyway? For example, the composer indicates "piano," but you consciously choose to play forte instead.
CB: I do this, as do many of my colleagues, but not until I have thoroughly studied the score. The ideal situation for me is to have a period in which I study a piece very intensely, followed by a period in which I try to forget that I ever studied it. I want to internalize a piece to the point that the spontaneity that follows stems from a firm foundation in the score. Otherwise, I am distorting a distortion of the score. I'd rather just distort the score instead.
Working with composers has convinced me that the vast majority of composers, even though they may have written something down a certain way, are all too happy to hear alternate versions of what they wrote. I remember being coached by Aaron Copland in his piano quartet back in 1982. Of course, we approached the piece with a due measure of devotion and reverence and all that, but every time we asked him about our ideas on how to play something, he'd just reply, "Oh, I like that. That's fine. That's very nice. I never thought of that." He was a practical musician.
This gets back to why I said that I can relate to Jacqueline du Pré's statement. For music to be a living art, you have to give yourself some latitude, and there's no one right way to do this. If there were, then you'd have nothing left to achieve after awhile. Fortunately, there's always some cul-de-sac or new avenue to explore. I try to be extremely spontaneous in performance.
TJ: Do you think of yourself as more of an instinctive player, despite your analytical training?
CB: I suppose so, though I didn't feel this way for a long time because I was such a late starter. I had to think very consciously about the things I was doing and Laurence Lesser was the perfect teacher for helping me to do this. As I became more comfortable with cello playing, I evolved insensibly towards an approach that I felt comfortable with and may have unconsciously codified after the fact. When I began to teach at Mannes and Juilliard, I discovered that I had developed a very personal approach, to which I hadn't given much thought before. One has to think about why one does things a certain way when one teaches.
TJ: Somebody once said that one hears phrases while listening to Emanuel Feuermann play; he was not known for being a musically "fussy" player. By contrast, other artists are known for taking great liberties with the music, distorting tempi and individual notes to the point that the player becomes as noticeable as the music itself. Where do you think you fall in this spectrum?
CB: I guess you're asking the wrong guy. In reviews I've been accused of every point along that scale, including both extremes. I'm considered a classicist, a sentimental slob, and everything in between. I couldn't say, though I think of myself as being somewhere in the middle. Naturally, we all like to think of ourselves as being the ideally balanced artist.
TJ: Let's talk about phrasing. Take the second theme in the first movement of the Dvorak Concerto, for example. The temptation can be to suddenly over-crescendo to the high A. How do you work on playing a phrase such that it sounds natural and in proportion?
CB: You have to remember that the cello is not capable of the dynamic range of a trombone, so you have to map out very carefully how you're going to shape that phrase. It's classically constructed, with a first half and a second half, and it's rather symmetrical. And yet the second half is more weighted toward the A, so you have to save something for it.
This particular phrase doesn't exist in a vacuum. Its opening major sixth is derived from the transitional phrase that precedes it, the minor sixth from B to G that is played by the cello, and the G to B answering turn that is played by the oboe and the violins. And then the interval played by the cello turns into a major sixth and the key changes to D Major, the relative major of the key of the concerto, B minor.
The major sixth needs to grow organically out of the previous section. The violins have to be a little above the marked pianissimo so that the soloist can complete the transition to the next phrase. Fortunately, this happens to be one of the few places in the score where the orchestra isn't overwhelming the cello, so, if you can get the orchestra to come down sufficiently, you can play a true pianissimo. This will allow you to open the phrase up little by little to that high A. By the time you reach it, you can play it with a singing forte or mezzo forte and have it be completely in proportion to the rest of the phrase.
TJ: What about phrasing in Baroque music? Do you think in terms of musical arcs, despite the fact that this is a more 19th century concept, according to certain musicologists?
CB: I certainly can't help hearing arcs in many baroque phrases, though I hear other shapes as well. In Bach you find summation phrases where the piece almost ends, but then there's a little tag to finish it off, like at the end of the D Major Prelude. There are symmetrical phrases that you may not want to play symmetrically, like when the second part needs to have more weight. There are also phrases with odd numbers of bars, where you have to make a decision about whether some overriding pattern is heavy and light. Phrase structures vary in music from all historical periods.
I find that a period instrument approach to bowing is very helpful in clarifying a lot of the counterpoint that's implied in the Cello Suites. It gives a liveliness, a springiness, and an inner rhythmic life to the music that's wonderful. It can also make it much easier to sort of turn on a dime, and, as Glenn Gould would say, to pull out "drawer-like" one voice from the counterpoint in order to show it to the audience and then push it back in.
TJ: Let's talk about bass lines. A lot of people seem to think that bass lines are boring to play since they often aren't too technically demanding. Do you have any thoughts on how to play a bass line effectively?
CB: The first requisite for a good bass line is to have great rhythm, which Leon Fleisher used to define as playing each note at the very last possible moment, having that held-back feeling. In a cello section, when we're able to hold back in tandem with the double basses, it always sounds so much better. The amount of bow one uses is also important, and this should be coordinated within the cello section so that a unified sound is achieved. Another important factor is to have some life in the left hand, which gives a springy effect to the notes.
TJ: Using the cello part from Mozart's D Major Flute Quartet as an example, how would you play this deceptively simple part, where the cello only has quarter notes on the first beat for several measures? (Measures 1-8.)
CB: The cello's D's kick off the viola's and violin's notes, which are three-and-a-half beats of eighth notes; they have a rest at the beginning of the measure. The cello has to furnish their launching pad, so you need to give a very energetic lift to the D. The flute feeds off this energy too, so it's up to the cellist to give his or her notes life with the appropriate amount of energetic attack and release in the left hand.
TJ: How "present" do you think a bass line should be? For instance, at measure 14 of the same flute quartet, the cello has a relatively active bass line (moving quarter notes on each beat), though it certainly isn't the melody. Should this be heard clearly or should it somehow blend into the background?
CB: The ideal is probably to just give gentle support to what's going on further up the score. If the audience is not conscious of what you are playing, that's probably the best. You're probably drawing too much attention to your part if people start commenting on your lovely bass line.
TJ: When you have a solo in chamber music, like in Beethoven's "Archduke" Trio, do you expect others to come down in order that you are heard, or do you have to play out?
CB: It's a combination of the two, and depends on the range in which I am playing. In the beginning of the recapitulation in the first movement, the cello plays the theme in its middle register, which is the worst in terms of projection. The cellist needs to play with a very concentrated sound, probably a sound anybody in his right mind would define as fortissimo. At the same time you have to keep the bow speed up so that it doesn't sound over-pressed and whining. It has to have a forward-traveling feel to it and remain free, so you can't press it passed the point where it's going to sound choked.
TJ: I saw an interview with you in which you said that playing with a real sustained quality always takes more effort. What does the word "sustained" mean in this context?
CB: String players and perhaps oboists are often so fascinated by the minutiae of note attractions and musical figures that their phrasing can sound disjointed and overly mannered, like we were discussing earlier with the second theme in the first movement of the Dvorak Concerto. It’s times like this that one has to step back and perhaps think more simply, and play in a more sustained manner, where one senses lines instead of individual notes. Sometimes you want all these nuances to be audible because it's interesting to you, even though it can be very onerous to listen to. Thinking and playing more simply, especially when you are aware of so much nuance, requires that you play with more attention and care. It's issues like these that make playing a beautiful phrase one of the greatest challenges of any striving musician.
I was recently rehearsing Mozart's A Major Quartet, K. 464, which has an opening motif that is first repeated and then fragmented. After awhile I realized that we were all so worried about blending these fragments together that we lost the sense of musical line. I suggested that we all try to connect the fragments into a simpler sostenuto phrase, which proved to be very difficult, though much more beautiful. Sometimes it is more difficult to play simply.
TJ: Prior to joining the New York Philharmonic, you were nurturing your own solo career, in addition to playing lots of chamber music. Have you ever felt that Yo-Yo Ma's extreme popularity resulted in lost solo opportunities for yourself?
CB: Not really. It's simply very difficult for a cellist to have a solo career. Truly great solo cello repertoire is limited, as is the audience's interest in the cello.
Yo-Yo's career is as much due to his very attractive personality as to his fabulous cello playing. There have been other cellists with as strong a gift throughout the century that never achieved his star power, but a combination of circumstances has created this amazing phenomenon. His winning personality, instrumental excellence, crossover activities, and his backing by the media machinery have helped him to become a household name, which is all too rare in classical music.
TJ: Could you please explain to me why the New York Philharmonic has to play behind the beat of the conductor?
CB: I wish I knew. It drives me crazy to this day. The fact that I've learned how to do it doesn't make me any happier about it. There is a psychological moment when it feels right to play, but it doesn't occur at the bottom of a baton stroke for this orchestra. I wish it did, since it would make my life a lot easier.
TJ: Does your use of vibrato change depending on whether you are playing in an orchestra, playing chamber music, or a playing as a soloist?
CB: Generally speaking, I think vibrato use has more to do with the music I'm playing, not whether or not I'm playing in an orchestra. Vibrato is varied in all of these situations to achieve certain sound colors, though, in a chamber group, there may be times when one wants to ease off on the vibrato so that precise intonation is achieved. This is less critical in an orchestra since there tends to be a chorus effect, where lots of vibrato generally doesn't disturb the intonation.
TJ: Some say that one shouldn't use a wide vibrato in orchestral playing, because, if one player is on the high side of the vibrato cycle and another is on the low side at the same time, their pitches could differ by at least a half-step.
CB: With twelve cellists playing simultaneously, this effect tends to cancel itself out. In my experience, bow speed and pressure, and fingering choice, affects the blend of the section much more than vibrato. If some play very brightly and others not so brightly, then certain cellists tend to stick out or disappear.
I try to stay out of people's faces in the Philharmonic when it comes to fingerings, because it's a very individual matter. But when I feel that fingering differences are getting in the way of our sounding as good as we could as a section, I'll say something. For example, Dvorak's Eighth Symphony begins with the cellos. I remember noticing that some people were going over to the D string just for the last B flat, so I asked people to not make that note a "widow." If you're on the A string, stay on the A string and then begin the next phrase, which goes down a dynamic level, on the D string; if you start the phrase on the D string, just stay there. In other words, just stay on whatever string you're on for that last note. It's a simple comment but it has an effect on how a section is going to be heard, and how the phrase will be shaped.
TJ: When playing solo works you can spend a lot of time and energy in practice sessions considering issues of phrasing and other aspects of the music. When you are in an orchestra, where your part is but one of many, I can see how these issues might be neglected?
CB: They can be. It depends on who's conducting. Some conductors are good at being very specific about how they want a phrase to be shaped, which orchestral players will respond well to. If I feel that some phrasing issue is not being addressed, I might take matters into my own hands and make some suggestions to my section, or I might raise my bow and ask a leading question of the conductor in order to direct his attention to what I see as a problem.
TJ: You only have a week to prepare a full program. This doesn't seem like enough time to really dig deeply into the music.
CB: True. On the other hand, repertory staples have a way of coming back to haunt us season after season. It's amazing how unified the phrasing can be, particularly in standard repertoire that musicians have been playing together for years.
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