The Green Room: Carter Brey

Classic Arts Features   The Green Room: Carter Brey
The New York Philharmonic's Principal Cellist talks about his mentor, Mstislav Rostropovich.

I will never, ever forget the first time I met Rostropovich," says Carter Brey, New York Philharmonic Principal Cellist and third-prize winner of the 1981 Rostropovich International Cello Competition. Among 75 or so young, aspiring soloists, Brey, then newly resigned from the Cleveland Orchestra, had traveled to Paris for the competition. Except for a Peabody Institute senior recital, Brey had never given solo performances, never played concertos with an orchestra. With his two-year Cleveland tenure almost up, that orchestra's personnel manager dropped a leaflet about the Rostropovich competition into his lap. "I'd never heard of it. But this was fate staring me in the face. I sent in the application that night." One month later he arrived in Paris "loaded for bear."

"After the second round of the competition, I was in a dressing room putting my cello away. Leonard Rose [the eminent cellist], who was on the jury, came looking for me. He was complimentary and said, 'Mr. Rostropovich wants to see you.' From that moment on everything in life was different, a paradigm shift."

Carter Brey discovered Rostropovich's recordings as a teenager. "It was so unlike any cello playing I'd ever heard‹the vividness of expression, the virtuosity! I remember sitting in my room listening over and over to the Prokofiev Sinfonia concertante [dedicated to Rostropovich]‹just the most difficult piece. And I knew this was the direction I wanted to follow. Vicariously, even then, I put myself in his hands."

A decade later, he followed Leonard Rose down the hall to finally meet his mentor: "First he gave me the famous 'Slava bear hug.' Then, with those pale blue eyes drilling through me like x-rays, he asked what I would play in the final round. When I told him the Prokofiev, I detected a brief dismayed look. Then he gave me some pointers, and I went back to my fleabag hotel to practice."

The following year, with Rostropovich in his other role, as conductor, Brey made his concerto debut with the National Symphony Orchestra, playing the Schumann Cello Concerto. "Backstage, before we went on, he clasped his arms together and swayed them back and forth. 'You will be like baby in cradle,'" recalls Brey, imitating Slava's Russian-accented English. "And, because he had internalized the music so deeply, I was."

Margaret Shakespeare writes frequently about music.

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