Old World or New, Sacred or Profane

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

The Adventures of a Cello - Carlos Prieto

I'm at home this week, recovering from surgery. It went well, but there's still more of the inevitable, but boring, healing period to go. Hurray for modern medicine, laser "vaporization" (Doesn't that sound, ummm, permanent!?), and Vicodin!

A few days before the procedure, my wife bought me a gift, a book with an included CD: The Adventures of a Cello by Carlos Prieto. The subject cello is a 1720 Stradivarius, the Piatti, known in the 19th century when it was in Ireland as the "Red Cello", and known to airline frequent flyer programs as Chelo Prieto.

I don't think I would have spent the money on such a book on my own, if I had heard of it. Ancient, mind-boggingly expensive instruments, while wonderful things I'm sure, don't especially intrigue me. It's just not the sort of thing that's meaningful to a novice player like me. I'm more interested in the evolution of ideas, the accomplishments of people, why things are the way they are. Well, that's really what the book is about anyway. The cello is mostly a literary device to tie many anecdotes and facts together. A gimmick, but a sensible gimmick to introduce cello history and make some dense material easier to absorb.

There's a review by Aaron Green over at classicalmusic.about.com which complains that "Only one third of the three hundred+ page book was devoted to the adventures of Prieto's cello. The rest was a well written history of cello making and its music.", as if that were a bad thing. I don't think that's fair. Seems to me, it's not a cello that has adventures, but rather owners, players, composers, and audiences.

So from the outset, it should be understood that the book is not single-minded; it serves multiple purposes (Take a look at the Table of Contents). The book introduces the reader who may know little about the instrument to its construction and history. It relates interesting anecdotes. It places into context the significant composers for the cello and their works, both past and present. It describes Senor Prieto's career, sharing his personal experiences with composers, performers, and the many folks he's met along the way. It promotes the cello. Lastly, but I think of most importance to the author, it promotes the classical cello music of Ibero-America, that is, Spain, Portugal, and Latin America.

Sometimes the long series of composers, and pieces, and concerts, and premieres, and concert halls get difficult to wade through. That means it's time to put it down and pick it up later. This is not a novel that one can just read from beginning to end. But since it's well indexed, I can easily find sections I want to read again and absorb better.

The Spanish language version came out in 1999, but the English version refers to events up to 2005 as the past, and at least one event in 2005 and another in 2006 as the future.

I have come away from the book and CD more aware that contemporary classical music must be alive and well in Ibero-America, driven by creative composers and appreciative audiences. That's not to say that Prieto and others with whom he works do not have a great deal of appreciation for the music and musician's of other nationalities. Quite the opposite. But they do take much pride in the accomplishments of the Spanish/Portuguese language artists. Particularly in the area of 20th/21st century classical, it seems from the book that they have taken the ball and run with it.

Now, anybody that knows me knows contemporary classical is not a major interest of mine. I'm just not that sophisticated. I have to say, though, the music on the CD is quite accessible, even for a bumpkin like me. The CD has 18 tracks with cello performed by Carlos Prieto. I don't feel any of the tracks are too atonal or dissonant or weird for my taste. Of the 18, I especially liked:

- The two tracks from the Bach's sixth Cello Suite. Since they are unaccompanied, you get to clearly hear the tone of the instrument. Yep, I'm impressed.

- The two tracks from Astor Piazolla, Milonga and Le grand tango. There's a lot to Le grand tango, I'm going to have to play that track quite a few times to more fully appreciate it.

- Cancion en el puerto by Joaquin Guitierrez Heras. I dunno, it's just soooo purrrty.

- "Presto with swing" from Eugenio Toussaint's Cello Concerto no. 2. Ok, I admit it, this is my favorite track of the bunch. Driving rhythms and jazz chords. Gershwin-ish/Bernstein-esque. Yeah, I can't help it, I'm just an unabashed Americano-phile.

So now I have a little more knowledge of 20th/21st century classical music. One person that I now want to learn more about, albeit unintended by the author, is Nadia Boulanger. Y'know, one bit of knowledge prepares the way for another.

Uh oh, I better go lie down before I catch heck from the Missus.