Interview: NY Phil Principal Cellist Carter Brey: World-Class Musician, Late-Starter

July 26, 2021, 7:43 PM · It was raining softly last Friday in beautiful Vail, Colorado, high in the Rocky Mountains, and the evening temperature had dropped to 59 degrees. More than 1,300 dedicated audience members took their seats at the outdoor Gerald R. Ford Amphitheater - beneath the shell and out on the lawn under umbrellas.

Everyone was gathered to hear the New York Philharmonic, which has been orchestra-in-residence for eight days in late July at the Bravo! Vail Music Festival. The orchestra tuned, and out came the evening's soloist, NYP Principal Cellist Carter Brey, to perform Haydn's Cello Concerto in C major on his 1754 Guadagnini. As the crowd quieted in anticipation of the music, the sound of the nearby babbling brook emerged, as well as the sound of the soft rain.

The high altitude, high humidity, low temperature and general nature of outdoor amplification are not naturally suited to bring out the fine points of a Classical-era cello concerto - but leave it to the elite-level musicians of the New York Philharmonic, as well as the support team at Bravo! Vail, to rise to any occasion.

Brey took his seat in front of the orchestra - and behind a small microphone. He smiled as he listened to the long orchestral introduction. As he had told me the day before, of all the cello concertos in the repertoire, the popular Haydn concerto "is certainly the most fun to play. It's just so full of high spirits, and it's written with an amazingly good understanding of the strengths of the instrument. It's demanding, yes, like every concerto is, but it also has a very inviting quality."

Carter Brey
Cellist Carter Brey plays with the New York Philharmonic July 23 at Bravo! Vail Music Festival. Photo Courtesy of Bravo! Vail Tomas Cohen Photography.

Indeed, this affable music felt like one big smile, and Brey played it with real ease. He also used cadenzas that he'd written himself, full of double-stops, turns, trills and interesting voicing. During the melodious second movement, the dedication of this audience emerged when they actually started humming along with the music (not just one person, but many!). The musicians of the NYP were very sensitive to their colleague, opening up space for some beautiful moments of quiet and repose within the music. And the last movement bounced along joyously - and quickly! Brey received three standing ovations.

I was left thinking - this guy!

During the four days I was at the Bravo! Vail, I had watched Brey perform in three different and demanding roles: one as the featured soloist in the performance described above -- and then also as the Principal Cellist for the New York Phil and as the cellist in the New York Philharmonic String Quartet.

How does he do it all? And what is the background of such a versatile musician? It might surprise his fans to learn that he was a very late starter, from a family of non-musicians. And he didn't exactly take to practicing at first.

Brey's first exposure to classical music was as a little boy - when he was home, sick with the mumps. "My dad brought home a recording of the Benjamin Britten Young Person's Guide to the Orchestra - and I wore that record out," Brey said. "I still remember, it was the Concertgebouw Orchestra with Eduard van Beinum conducting. I still have this LP on my shelf! I loved the sound of the strings, more than anything."

So when he was in the fourth grade and his school offered beginning instrumental music, "I signed up for the violin, because I loved the way the violins sounded on the record," he said. "The string teacher in my public elementary school in Hastings-on-Hudson gave me my first little factory-made violin - with the rosin in a wooden tray - and I was so excited."

"But I didn't really evince any talent for it, and I didn't really spend any more time than necessary practicing," he said. "My parents weren't musicians, so they didn't make me practice. So I was just on my own, and I didn't really devote any special time to it."

In about the sixth grade, he decided he liked the lower frequencies of the cello better, so he changed to cello. "I was still under the aegis of the public school system, still really not giving it any special attention," he said.

But then adolescence hit, and that coincided with a new string teacher during his first year of high school. "He put us on a diet of great chamber music masterpieces - way beyond our ability to play!" Brey said. "I remember doing the Mozart D minor String Quartet, K. 421, and most importantly, the exposition of the Schubert Quintet in C major - the greatest chamber music masterpiece in existence. Believe it or not, he actually had a group of us doing this. We struggled through it for a year."

"I think the combination of that quality of music with the onset of puberty hit me like a ton of bricks," Brey said. "Suddenly I had to have this in my life, full-time."

Brey took it upon himself to find a private cello teacher, and "to pay for my lessons, I did yard work," he said. "My lessons were 45 minutes long, and they cost nine dollars. My teacher's name was Barbara Levy. I would go there for my lessons after school, and my mom would pick me up afterwards. She put me on a steady diet of scales, arpeggios and technical exercises, and I took to them like a duck to water. That's when I started practicing seriously, with an eye - in some vague, untutored way - toward becoming a professional."

That worried his parents, and it worried his high school strings teacher as well. "To them, I was starting from zero," he said. "They didn't know if I had talent or not; I was just beginning with this stuff."

"My mother would say, 'Isn't it time to go out and get some fresh air?' She was the opposite of the tiger mom," Brey said. "It was all coming from inside me; I had to have it in my life. So I just practiced my little butt off through high school, and then I took auditions to get into music school and miraculously got accepted."

Brey studied with Laurence Lesser at the Peabody Institute. "He was willing to take a risk and teach me," Brey said. "He heard something in my playing that told him that there was some talent there that wanted to come out. So I'm eternally grateful for that."

Would he classify himself as a "late-starter" on the cello?

"I was definitely a late starter!" he laughed. "I was lucky - on one hand I was disadvantaged because I didn't come from a musical background, and I was starting absurdly late for someone who had designs on a professional career. On the other hand, I didn't have anybody to tell me that what I was doing was stupid. They just said, 'Oh, okay.' I felt a deep certitude in my core that I could do this really well. I don't know what that was based on! (he laughs) But looking back, I certainly wouldn't advise anybody to start that late."

While in his 20s, "I was a member of the Cleveland Orchestra cello section for two years. I sat in the back of the cello section from 1979 to 1981," Brey said. "Danny Majeske was the concert master and Stephen Geber was my principal, in the cello section. John Mack was the principal oboe. That was fantastic for me, with these great older players. It like graduate music school, like going to phrasing school, hearing these guys play, day in and day out, and learning about orchestra dynamics."

Brey left Cleveland in 1981 in order to enter competitions, and a year later he won Young Concert Artists. "That put me on the road to becoming a soloist," Brey said. "I had a 15-year solo career after that."

Fast-forwarding to 1996: "The New York Philharmonic was looking for someone to replace Lorne Munroe, who was retiring after 30 years or so," Brey said. "I was ready for that because I had a young family and I wasn't so interested in being on the road all the time. But I also brought a combination of skills, having been an orchestra player before, and being a soloist. It made sense - to them as well as to me."

Carter Brey
Cellist Carter Brey.

Having so much experience as a principal cellist and quartet player, what does he see in each of those roles? In a nutshell, he said, they involve the same skill set: showing up prepared to play the part well, and then listening to what is going on around you and responding in real time to that.

"As the cellist, you spend a good part of the time playing the bass line and furnishing the fundamentals of the harmonies," Brey said. "It's important that you have good rhythm -- but is it not important that everyone else also has good rhythm? Of course it is." It's also important for the cellist to be able to "disconnect from that when necessary, and be a soloist, too."

"Of course, the wonderful thing about the New York Philharmonic String Quartet is the sheer virtuosity of every member - it's amazing and it's so rare to have that," he said. "You can just take for granted that everybody is going to shine on their parts. It means that when we spend a lot of detail work on things like intonation, balance and blend - which we do - you can trust that that is going to happen on stage."

"Any kind of live music is all about listening," he said. "If you're not listening, you shouldn't be there. I find that there's very little difference between being in a string quartet and being in an orchestra. The difference is that in an orchestra, there are greater physical distances involved and you're also listening and interacting with woodwind, brass and percussion players, too. It is important to us in the Philharmonic that we have that communication; we are always looking at each other."

"If our principal flute has an eight-bar phrase and he needs to take a breath at the end of the fourth bar, I trust that my colleagues behind me in the cello section are attuned to that," he said. "They are going to give him just that iota, that micro-beat extra time there that he needs. I know they'll do that. So that's a great pleasure for me, having colleagues at such a high level - not just in the quartet but in the orchestra."

In the midst of such an intense musical career and considerable schedule of concerts and engagements, something Brey appears to have taken to heart is his mother's early admonition to occasionally "go get some fresh air." Every year, Brey takes several weeks to go sailing.

"Everybody is different, of course, and a lot of my colleagues fill their lives with nothing but musical activities - they teach huge studios at major music schools, and when the Philharmonic is not playing, they fill their calendars with summer music festivals," Brey said. "I used to do that, too, and I don't any more. I'm extremely choosy with summer music festival activity - this year I'm only doing one, outside what the Philharmonic is doing."

"I actually just resigned from the Curtis Institute faculty," he said. "I feel the passage of the years. I'm in wonderful physical shape, I'm athletic, and I work on staying healthy and fit. But I don't want to enter my dotage not having done anything other than music - because I do have other interests. Trying to combine a teaching schedule with the Philharmonic and the String Quartet is starting to wear on me. It was not making me happy, and most importantly, I felt like I was not available to the Curtis students to the degree that I wished to be."

"At this age - I just turned 66 - I would like to have a lot of active years ahead of me, where I can do things in life that are not necessarily music-related," he said. "Paramount among those is sailing. I grew up sailing with my dad on Long Island Sound, so it's always been a part of my life. But it's becoming increasingly a big part of my life - I love it. It's a way for me to try to perfect another completely different set of skills. Just a year ago I got my Offshore Certification from the Royal Yachting Association, just to give myself a kick in the butt, to reconnect with something that's different."

"I often go out by myself," he said. "It's a way of disconnecting from people, and then connecting with forces of nature that operate on a very large scale - a scale large enough to be lethal, at times! That's a really important part of my life now - I like to cast off the lines and get out there by myself for a few weeks, measure myself against nature, and plug into the incredible beauty that sailing offers. It's not so different from playing the cello; it's a combination of skill, science, nature, physics. And there's an art to it, as well, once you reach a certain level. I'm trying to make room, at this stage of my life, for that to happen as well, before I get so old that I can't pull a halyard."

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Replies

July 27, 2021 at 02:23 AM · Mr. Brey's perspectives on music and life are completely refreshing and inspiring. I thoroughly enjoyed reading about his concert in Vail, as well as his musical background and interest in sailing. Thank you, Laurie, for this wonderful glimpse into his artistry!

July 27, 2021 at 03:08 AM · Mr. Brey as a "very late starter" got serious 35 years younger than I was when I made my start --and he'd already been learning music for 3 years before then. So I guess I'm a very very very very very very very very very late starter who will therefore probably never even get good enough to play on my front porch. Oh well, at least I can paddle my canoe down the Naugatuck river every once in a while when frustrated with my instruments. All that said, I know it's my own fault for wasting my life working for money when I should have got serious about music back in 5th grade, when I was already collecting records and at least being a serious listener.

July 27, 2021 at 08:27 AM · I was looking for a teacher at about the same age that Mr. Brey started taking private lessons. I was rejected by multiple teachers, all of them saying I was too old to learn a string instrument even as a hobby -- one said that someone starting at that age could never sound like anything but a dying cat. I tried to find a teacher for three years, gave up on getting lessons, and started a serious effort at self-teaching.

As it turns out, the first rejections also happened to take place a few months after Mr. Brey became principal cellist of the NY Phil. If I'd known at the time, I would have replied that Carter Brey had started lessons at the same age.

July 28, 2021 at 06:35 PM · I have met Maestro Brey through "Mostly Music" - a chamber music series that he and Ani Kavafian ran for decades here in NJ. The one thing I noted the most is that he is overwhelmingly joyful both in playing and in person.

I was unaware of his "Late Starter" status. However that moniker should be qualified as a Late Starter for becoming a top professional. There are a lot of folks, like me, who started music and instrument lessons long after high school. Those of us who started very late generally don't have aspirations of being any kind of professional musician. Dreams or delusions maybe, but not serious asperations.

July 29, 2021 at 03:47 AM · It's fascinating to me that the Schubert Cello Quintet was life changing for him. I had a sort of similar experience much later in life with that piece and the viola.

I had played 1st violin, 2nd violin, and occasional viola in string quartets back in Boston but after I moved to CA I was looking for a musical niche, and not really finding it on the violin. Learning the viola part of the Schubert cello quintet helped me find that niche and come to really enjoy playing an inner voice of high-quality chamber music.

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