Research Communications

String Theory 

With a rare 18th century Milanese cello at his side, Michael Carrera makes beautiful music

May 24, 2011

In the office of musician Michael Carrera is a framed photograph of a man getting soaked by rain while he holds an umbrella over a cello case.

It’s a reminder that while artists notoriously suffer for their art, cellists set an industry standard for sacrifice—if not in money, time, and emotion spent, in simply getting from point A to point B. This past year, as Carrera flew back and forth for a major recording project in Moldova, his instrument took its usual seat next to him on the plane.

A couple of times, says Carrera, upon finding out that “Cello” is not just a creative first name, “(airlines have) wanted to kick me off a flight.”

Michael Carrera
Michael Carrera.

Considering that cellos made the early 1700s, like Carrera’s, range in value between $500,000 and $6 million, these toils of transit have little to do with sentimentality. Carrera’s means of making art, a roughly four-foot tall instrument originally crafted in early 18th century Milan, is itself a rare and stunning work of art. Even his bows, which date back as far, cost around $40,000.

In short, to be a cellist, you need great skill, passion, discipline, and either independent wealth or a benefactor, like Carrera’s: Daniel Ng, chair of Hong Kong McDonalds.

This is not to say that Carrera lacks sentimentality. “Here is one of the most beautiful cellos you’ll ever see,” he says, pulling the honey-hued antique from its case to point out the knotted grain of its spruce front and the delicacy of its original scroll. Carrera’s affection for cellos began at age six, “the minute I started lessons.” It survived fickle childhood years to blossom in high school, when he began to truly listen to classical music.

Today Carrera, an Ohio University associate professor of cello, produces an ambitious recording, tour, or other major creative project about once a year.

This year it’s a recording of concert works by the prolific Hungarian film and concert composer Miklós Rózsa, best known for his Oscar-winning scores for films like Ben-Hur and Alfred Hitchcock’s Spellbound.

Carrera’s Ohio colleagues, composer Steven Huang, director of orchestras, and Marjorie Bagley, violinist and former string division chair, helped him to realize this particular vision with support from a $12,000 Baker Fund award and $8,000 from the Ohio University Research Committee.

Unlike many other Hollywood composers, Rózsa simultaneously launched a robust concert career, writing symphonic works for leading concert musicians, including cello virtuoso Gregor Piatigorsky. Carrera’s interest in Rózsa lies in the composer’s deft versatility: his rare ability to impress both the general public and classical musicians.

“The difference between Rózsa and others that tried to get into both scenes was that Rózsa was trained for concert,” Carrera says. “His film scores may be accessible to moviegoers, but they were also highly difficult and complex compositions that would take a trained musician weeks, months, or even years to learn.”

With this recording, Carrera hopes to expose more people to the energy and originality of Rózsa’s concert work. The idea gained steam when the trio performed Rózsa’s double concerto at the School of Music in 2009. “People went crazy,” Carrera recalls, describing the double concerto they played as “pure energy—there’s not one moment when you can fully relax.”

Bagley and Huang have worked with Carrera on several previous projects, but he considers the Rózsa CD, which will come out this spring, one of the best they’ve done.  

“When you make a CD, it’s for the rest of your life and beyond,” Carrera says. And not just for him, Huang, and Bagley, but also for the composer and every soloist and orchestra member of the Moldova Philharmonic, not to mention the producer and sound engineers. “There is a lot of vested interest, and ultimately, we have to compromise.”

Unlike with most popular music, for which musicians often record in isolation and then mix the elements later, orchestral music must be recorded live, altogether. So arriving at a compromise requires many hours, divided into painstaking cycles: record (with microphones on each orchestra section and soloist) for about 20 minutes, go to the lab to listen, determine weaknesses, re-record… repeat.

Days to weeks later, when the music has been recorded to everyone’s relative satisfaction, the editing begins.  This can take months of meticulous work, even though the digital age has greatly eased the process, says Carrera, who plans to record the complete works that Johann Sebastian Bach wrote for cello, including six solo suites and three sonatas with harpsichord, for his next project.

Before the Rózsa CD, Carrera directed a 2008 concert tour called “Remembering Tiananmen Square,” performed with the Juniper Chamber Music Festival in Utah. For this concert, performed in Utah, Columbus, and Athens, Carrera played as the lone cellist amid five percussionists in the concerto “Elegy: Snow in June,” by composer Tan Dun.

Last June, Carrera traveled to China to perform and teach master classes. Inspired by the Chinese public’s appreciation for classical music, he hopes to cultivate ties with his Chinese colleagues into an ongoing cultural exchange.

Carrera books many of his concerts one to three years in advance. With his Arcata String Quartet, he has performed more than 400 concerts in the United States and Europe, including Carnegie Hall, London’s Wigmore Hall, and the Beijing Concert Hall, among many other prestigious venues and music festivals.

Carrera carefully balances his professional activity with teaching, setting his rehearsal and performance schedule first. “When I protect time for my cello like that, it helps students realize that ‘he has to work as hard as he tells us to,’” he explains.

He’s been playing his Milanese cello for 12 years—since before he left Utah State University to join the Ohio University School of Music in 2002, and he plans to keep it for the rest of his life.

But his relationship to the music constantly changes.

“When I was younger, I just showed up and played—and I was flashy,” he says. “Now, I want to figure out how to get a person in the front row to cry.”

Collaborator Huang notes that as a musician, Carrera’s strong suit is often finding those quiet, sensitive moments.

“I’ve never heard such a beautiful soft-held tone on the cello,” Huang says. “I think that his intensity is necessary to be able to perform those quiet moments with such concentrated focus. If his leg were to catch on fire during a performance, I don’t think he’d notice.”

The trick to such artful performance? Carrera’s students may be disappointed to hear his answer: hours of daily and diligent practice.

He draws a parallel to tennis star Andre Agassi. “How many forehands does Agassi practice every day so that he won’t miss a shot in the game? … I have to train myself to do things so many times that when it’s time to perform, I’m not scared to do things differently.”

By Anita Manderfield

This article appears in the Spring/Summer 2011 issue of Perspectives magazine.