“If I had started from when I was a very young man in music, I would have concentrated more on the usual repertoire,” Prieto says. “But since I had to recover time, maybe this made me so interested in learning new music by contemporary composers and in convincing them to compose for the cello. … I needed something to make me different from other cellists.” A 2004 article in Michigan State University School of Music’s Music Notes credits Prieto with at least half of the Latin American cello repertoire. And the famed cellist Yo-Yo Ma calls him “a prolific contributor to the flow of music throughout the Western hemisphere,” likening him to Mstislav Rostropovich as “a true champion of the cello.”
As a writer, Prieto has also contributed to the flow of ideas around the world, and several of his books grew directly out of his MIT education. His Russian studies led to two books on Russia and sparked his interest in the evolution and extinction of languages, resulting in 5,000 Years of Words. And he notes that without his MIT economics background, he couldn’t have written the chapter on the recent economic evolution of China in his forthcoming book, Throughout China: Memories and Commentaries. “That’s not exactly what you learn at the conservatory,” he says. “If it had not been for my experiences at MIT, probably my life would have been very different.”
The recipient of such awards as the 2006 Order of Civil Merit from the king of Spain, Mexico’s 2007 National Prize for the Arts, and as of May 2008, the Pushkin Medal from the Russian Government, Prieto has also served on MIT’s Music and Theater Arts Visiting Committee since 1993. And visit he did in February, to perform and share stories from The Adventures of a Cello, his carefully researched biography of his remarkable instrument. He told of its creation by a legendary Italian violin maker in 1720 and recounted how Francesco Mendelssohn tricked Nazi soldiers in order to escape Germany with it in the late 1930s. He also confessed that his wife’s idea to rechristen the cello “Miss Chelo Prieto” not only streamlined the process of booking its airline tickets but enabled the vaunted instrument to earn–and generously share–frequent-flier miles.
Prieto may use some of those miles when he returns to MIT for his 50th reunion in June. And when he performs with the Boston Pops in Symphony Hall for Tech Night at the Pops, he’ll do so as a man who’s never missed being president of a large, important company. “My vocation is music,” he says. “It’s what I was born for.”