Get To Know New York Philharmonic Principal Cellist, Carter Brey!

September 18, 2009 at 2:22pm

Ever wonder what it’s like to be a principal cellist of a world renowned orchestra? Or what it takes to become such an accomplished musician? Well here is your chance!

Carter Brey was appointed Principal Cellist of the New York Philharmonic in 1996, and made his subscription debut as soloist with the Orchestra in May 1997, performing Tchaikovsky’s Rococo Variations led by then-Music Director Kurt Masur.
New York Philharmonic Principal Cellist, Carter BreyNew York Philharmonic Principal Cellist, Carter Brey

An Interview with Carter Brey
questions submitted by Facebook Fans

Question: What are the main things that you need to keep in mind or do when you’re leading a section?
Answer: Hm, that’s a good question. I always keep in mind that I have the privilege of leading a section of consummate professionals. They certainly don’t need my help except in very few specific circumstances. I’m expected to do bowings. Everybody has to play the same bowings. Also, I coordinate with the other string principles, primarily, Glenn Dicterow, the Concertmaster. Furthermore, I serve as a conduit to the conductor when anybody has a musical question or a question about articulation, dynamics, balance, anything. They’ll ask me and then I ask the conductor. Most obviously I handle all the solos. So, sometimes I’m referred to as the solo cellist of the Philharmonic.

Question: Is 15 too old to learn how to play the cello?
Answer: That’s not too old. I started private lessons when I was 16, so that’s a year on me. It all depends on your inner image of yourself. If you have an image of the kind of sound you want to make and the kind of player you want to me, if it’s strong inside of you, you can do that starting at age 15. It also would be very important that you have a good teacher and get a really good technical foundation. And of course, 95 percent of developing as a student is the work you do on your own in the practice room. You have to put in those hours. And a teacher, I think at best can offer some direction to that. I would advise one to not be put off by their age. I don’t think it’s too late. It’s still younger than I was when I started.

Question: Who is the maker of your cello?
Answer: My cello is made by a man named Giovanni Battista Guadagnini in 1754. He’s generally considered to be the next most illustrious of the Italian makers after the Stradivari’s and the Guarneri’s. He was an illiterate as many highly skilled artisans were at the time. He always would sign documents with an X. He apparently had a very short temper. He became very impatient with people and he moved around a lot for someone who lived at that time in the middle of the 18th century. He was born in Piacenza. He moved to Cremona to study Stradivari’s tools and techniques. After which, he lived in Milan for several years where he made my instrument. After which he moved to Parma and he died in Torino. Italy didn’t exist as a country then, but they were in the north of what is now Italy.

Question: What is it like to be where you are at today, professionally?
Answer: Well, the short answer is that it feels wonderful. I never take my position for granted. And, I would say that a day does not go by when I don’t feel grateful to have the opportunities that I have and have had and presumably will continue to have. It’s a position that offers me tremendous opportunities as a musician. Playing in the New York Philharmonic is a great sort of anchor to my life as a musician. It’s a great center to my life as a musician that also offers me a lot of flexibility because I can go away and be a soloist sometimes. I get to play a lot of chamber music not only with my colleagues in the Philharmonic, but outside with other musicians as well. And it exposes me on a weekly basis to a lot of music that is not accessible to someone who just plays the cello. Being part of a bigger musical organism means that I can take part in music that’s written for huge groups of people and I think it’s a good thing for people’s sense of their own modesty to be part of something that’s bigger than they are themselves.

Question: What strings do you use?
Answer: I use all steel wound on steel. I use a Jargar A string, a D’Addario Helicore D string, and Spirocore G and C strings; and I use heavy gauge for all four strings. I use heavy gauge because I need the most weight and resistance possible to have a hope of being heard in a space like Avery Fisher Hall.

Question: How did you get into the cello? How old were you when you started?
Answer: Well, I was an only child growing up in a household without musicians. In fact, my mother was tone deaf. [LAUGHS] But, there was often music in the house because my father; although he was a commercial illustrator by profession actually had a very good musical ear and he listened to music often while he was working in his studio. We also had a piano. He liked to play the piano and I was just attracted very strongly from my earliest childhood to music. It wasn’t until I was in my teens that I felt a push so strongly (to play the cello) that I went out and I found myself a private teacher. And I had to start from the bottom with just slow scale practice and open string exercises, the usual things that little kids start from. I made rapid progress and I made time every day before school and after my after school job to practice the cello. And, maybe most importantly I listened to a lot of great players--and not just cellists. I listened to a lot of great violinists and a lot of great pianists. So I was able to hear a wide range of approaches to instrumental playing and a lot of great music. And in addition to that I also listened to a lot of great singing which maybe was the most important influence of all because when you play a string instrument you’ve got to be able to sing. So, listening to singers was a great way of expanding my horizons as well.

Question: What is your practice regimen?
Answer: Scales are still a daily part of my life as a musician. I play scales and arpeggios every day through all 24 major and minor, minor keys. It’s just sort of the common coin or the lingua franca of the language--the instrumentalists speak. I find it’s very important not only to maintain a certain kind of suppleness and flexibility physically, but it helps my reading as well.