After earning two bachelor’s degrees (in economics, politics, and engineering and in materials science and engineering), Prieto returned to Mexico to work as an engineer at Fundidora Monterrey. In 1962, he took a five-month leave to study Russian in Moscow at the invitation of the deputy premier of the USSR. (Prieto had impressed him when called upon to translate during a Soviet delegation’s visit to the Monterrey steel plant.) But most of Prieto’s energy went into his career, propelling him to vice president of production and then president at Fundidora Monterrey. He was also appointed president of the National Chamber of Iron and Steel Industries, and he chaired several international councils that brought together Mexican businessmen and their counterparts in Japan, Korea, and China. As his responsibilities–and young family–grew, Prieto found it harder to make time for his cello. And as he played less, he came to doubt that he’d chosen the right career path. So after nearly two decades in the steel industry, and with the support of his wife, María Isabel, he made up his mind to start again. “I decided that even if I didn’t have much success as a musician, I would feel happier as a musician than as a businessman,” he says.
The Composer’s Cellist
It took Prieto three years to extract himself fully from the business world. Intent on making up for lost time, he threw himself into practicing as he relinquished his corporate duties. Amateurs can make mistakes, but if a professional musician plays notes out of tune in a concert, he explains, “it’s really a disaster.” Having drunk from the firehose at MIT–and relieved to be devoting his energies to something he loved–he didn’t mind practicing 10 to 12 hours a day. But he also experienced frustration, exhaustion, and discouragement. He found it very hard to learn new pieces and recalls “days in which I would spend eight hours not playing any piece but just doing bowing exercises and not making any progress at all.” Prieto also had to leave his wife and three children at home, often for months at a time, to study with Pierre Fournier in Geneva and with Leonard Rose in New York. And performances had to be scheduled on top of those long days of catch-up practicing.
During his transition period, Prieto joined the chamber ensemble Trío México. In 1978, the day after his last day at Fundidora Monterrey, the trio boarded a plane for a European concert tour. The following year, Trío México toured the Soviet Union and became one of the first Western chamber ensembles to perform in China after the Cultural Revolution. Meanwhile, Prieto began garnering impressive reviews on his own. “In a few years Carlos Prieto has jumped into the front ranks of cello playing today; not only a virtuoso but a complete artist,” proclaimed Madrid’s El País in 1981. By 1982, he was in such demand as a soloist that he gave up his membership in Trío México. His 1984 Carnegie Hall debut got a glowing review in the New York Times: “Prieto knows no technical limitations and his musical instincts are impeccable.”
In concerts abroad, Prieto struggled to meet requests to add Mexican works to his programs. “I was very embarrassed to discover that I could count the Mexican concertos on the fingers of my hand and have several fingers to spare,” he says. In 1980, he set out to recruit Mexican composers to write for the cello, later expanding his campaign to Spanish and Latin American composers. The 80 or so works Prieto has premiered include a few pieces he rediscovered, but most are those he commissioned or inspired.