Once More, with Feeling

Carlos Prieto ‘58 abandoned a promising business career to pursue a life in music.

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.

Carlos Prieto ’58 performed the Saint-Saëns Cello Concerto in A Minor with the Boston Pops at Symphony Hall when he returns to MIT for his 50th reunion.

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.

Listen to Carlos Prieto ’58 perform on his historic cello, known as the Piatti, which was crafted by the legendary violin maker Antonio Stradivari in 1720.
  • CreateFlash("http://www.technologyreview.com/files/16637/1.mp3"); J. S. Bach, Courante from Suite No. 6 in D Major for solo cello
  • CreateFlash("http://www.technologyreview.com/files/16638/2.mp3"); J. S. Bach, Gavotte from Suite No. 6 in D Major for solo cello
  • CreateFlash("http://www.technologyreview.com/files/16639/3.mp3"); Dmitri Shostakovich, Allegro from Cello Sonata in D Minor, op. 40, with Doris Stevenson, piano
  • Credit: Carlos Prieto, courtesy of Urtext Digital Classics. David Frost, producer. University of Texas Press, Austin.

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.

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.

“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.”

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