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In 1975, Carlos Prieto ‘58 stunned his colleagues by announcing that he would resign as president of Fundidora Monterrey, a leading Mexican steel company, and step down as chairman of several national business organizations. When he told them he meant to become a professional cellist, they were incredulous. Why would he walk away from such a brilliant career at the age of 38? Surely he was just taking a sabbatical; he’d go off and play his cello and be back at his desk in a year’s time.

Prieto’s musician friends were equally skeptical. He was a gifted amateur, but the grueling hours of practice required to perform professionally–not to mention the energy and time consumed by travel, rehearsals, and concerts–would soon change his mind. They, too, predicted he’d return to the executive suite before long.

But Prieto proved everyone wrong.

Today, he’s considered a world-class cellist. Revered as a champion of new music, he has persuaded a long list of composers to write new works for cello and has premiered more than 80 pieces. Although he’s slackened his pace a bit, now performing just 75 to 80 concerts each year instead of 100, he’ll publish his seventh book in 2008. To hear him tell it, there’s nothing extraordinary about carving out time between performances at world-famous concert halls to chronicle the collapse of Soviet communism, research the history of language in Homo sapiens, or analyze the evolution of the Chinese economy since 1978. “I take advantage of very long trips to read and to write on the planes,” he says.

Prieto was on campus this winter to discuss (and cheerfully autograph copies of) his book about his famous Stradivari cello, the Piatti. And when he performed for a packed Killian Hall, he displayed not just mastery but obvious delight.

Many Interests, One Love
Prieto knew it wouldn’t be easy to change careers as his 40th birthday loomed. And in fact, making his way as a professional cellist turned out to be harder than he had expected. “If the crystal ball had been very clear, maybe I would not have had the courage to jump from one activity to the other,” he observes wryly. “It often happens in life that you do things because you don’t know exactly how difficult they are going to be.”

Although he had earned a reputation as an industry leader, ­Prieto’s passion for music was no mere fling; it was a lifelong love affair. Before he was born, his mother had decided that he would play the cello in the Prieto family string quartet. (The original quartet had brought his violin-playing parents together in Spain; when they moved to Mexico after marrying, the quartet’s cellist–Carlos’s uncle–stayed in Europe.) At four, Prieto began studying with the Hungarian cellist Imre Hartman; within two years, he was playing with his parents and grandfather in the Prieto Quartet. By 16, he had given several concerts as a soloist–and had demonstrated his prowess in math and physics. Torn between his love for music and his affinity for science, he applied to just one school: MIT. When he got in, his parents encouraged him to go, thinking that a career as an engineer would offer more stability than a life devoted to music.

At MIT, Prieto plunged into his engineering and economics studies but still managed to perform as first cello and soloist with the MIT Symphony Orchestra. He haunted MIT’s music library, where as a freshman he discovered Dmitri Shostakovich’s Sixth Symphony. Amazed by the piece, he listened to all the ­Shostakovich recordings in the library–and was shocked that the man he considered a genius had also produced music he found “amazingly mediocre.” He would come to learn that to stay in Stalin’s good graces, the composer had needed to write music the Communist Party wouldn’t deem too bourgeois. Fascinated by ­Shostakovich–and undeterred by his inability to read Russian–Prieto subscribed to the Soviet music magazine Sovietskaya Muzyka, whose monthly arrival in a mysterious package from the USSR made fellow East Campus residents wonder if he was a spy. He then proceeded to take every Russian language course MIT offered.

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Credit: Asia Kepka

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