Trey Lee, cellist

Who or what inspired you to pursue a career in music and who or what have been the most important influences on your musical life and career?

Without a doubt, Pau (Pablo) Casals has been a major inspiration for multiple reasons. His playing has always sounded like someone singing and speaking at the same time, which is what I am constantly trying to achieve in my own playing; I find that a musician who can do both has a much greater ability to keep a listener’s attention. Much is also said about his interpretations being irresistibly astute. Whether or not you agree with his ideas, much of this comes down to his courage to play everything with total commitment. Why courage? I think it’s because as artists, we are terrified that once we have made a musical decision that can reveal the essence of who we are, we will be judged by it forever (particularly so on a recording). However, Casals’s significance beyond his solo career is what has continued to inspire me over the years. While concertizing as the foremost cello soloist of his time, he also undertook a number of endeavours that have continued to influence the world of music.

Today, cellists all take for granted that the Bach Cello Suites are very much a part of our lives. (Living in Berlin, I am less than two hours away from the town of Cöthen, where he composed them.) But we owe much of these works’ ubiquity to Casals. His elevation of the Bach Suites to the pinnacle of the cello repertoire is a singular feat that probably will never be replicated, and yet, is also an example that encourages all of us to seek out new works; it has certainly provided me impetus to imagine how music from other genres and instruments can be expressed on the cello convincingly and with integrity. Sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t, but it’s become an essential part of the job today.

Casals was also chiefly responsible for the founding of at least two music festivals in Prades and Puerto Rico. It was my great fortune to spend some time at the Abbaye St Michel de Cuxa in Prades studying and performing with his student Bernard Greenhouse. Sitting in the refectory after concerts drinking the dull but plentiful wine made on-site surrounded by the thousand-year-old Gothic setting, I fantasized about bringing such a captivating atmosphere elsewhere, and the seeds for my own festival, Musicus Fest, were sown. Another series, Musicus Heritage, is held in

Hong Kong’s historic sites where the locals never imagined concerts would take place, but now they do! The “cellist as festival founder” is truly another Casals legacy.

Ever the pioneer, Casals’s piano trio with Jacques Thibaud and Alfred Cortot was already conquering the music world decades before another celebrated threesome, the Million Dollar Trio of Heifetz, Rubinstein and Piatigorsky, arose. Having formed a trio with my sisters from a young age, I cannot help but be drawn to the repertoire that their combined celebrity must have helped to magnify – their old crackly recordings are indelibly etched in my memory.

Finally, during both times that I performed at the United Nations General Assembly Hall, I was always reminded of Casals playing one of his most famous works, the Song of the Birds, in the exact same spot. It is extremely spare in its writing, but astonishingly intense in its emotional power. Seeing a cellist command the attention of the world’s political elites and bring them to tears suddenly makes all the blood, sweat and tears spent on the cello a lot less arduous, and much more purposeful.

What have been the greatest challenges of your career so far?

Having traipsed through countless airports with my cello on my back, I now appreciate the few times a year when I can travel WITHOUT my cello! I don’t know how many non-cellists realize this, but it is extremely difficult to fit into a typical airport bathroom cubicle with your cello and carry-on roller bag. (Sorry for the TMI!)

Which performances/recordings are you most proud of?

I’m really gratified by how I was able to record an album of works by Schumann, Chopin, and Mendelssohn on my own terms. These are pieces that every cellist knows and has most likely studied at some point. I wanted to forget about them as works I had studied as a student and use them as avenues through which I can find my voice. For instance, both Chopin and Schumann’s backgrounds as pianists give their compositions an extra layer of complexity for string players: namely, a lot of the legato markings are not really bowings to be followed faithfully, but rather phrase markings. Therefore, we are often either stuck trying to play extremely long phrases in one bow, or we are changing bows willy-nilly. There was a mental process I had to go through to rid myself of preconceived notions about the meanings of markings in the scores, and to finally be able to convince myself, “The lines over the notes are NOT bowings, but represent how they would SING it,” and singing was the key. Singing is related to breathing, which is an intrinsic part of phrasing. In this recording, I feel that I finally found the freedom in the phrasing and interpretation that I always wanted to communicate in these compositions.

Which particular works/composers do you think you perform best?

Brahms is probably the main reason I am a musician today, and ironically, it’s a piano (not cello) work of his that inspired me the most: the cello solo in his Second Piano Concerto (which really should have been the slow movement of a cello concerto from him!). And his work with which I connect the most, is again, ironically, his First Violin Sonata “Regenlied” in a cello version that might or might not have been arranged by him. I was told by the judges at the Janigro Competition that it was the one piece that won the whole thing for me, and I must admit that when I played it, I forgot I was even at a competition…I just love playing it! For me, it represents everything that I want to say with music. There is the ethereal opening theme that has a spoken quality in its very first dotted rhythm that keeps coming back throughout, followed by a second theme that challenges you to play it as if you were a singer having to hold an interminably long breath. In fact, I think the pizzicato chords later in the first movement sound much better with the resonance of the cello!

I also have a particular affinity for Piazzolla’s music…not surprising since its popularity has never stopped growing after he revolutionized the genre. However, I came upon tangos via a somewhat unexpected route. I was at a party with some musicians from Finland when one of them got drunk and started to sing Finnish tangos, which I didn’t even realize was a thing! However, I immediately gravitated toward its melancholic character and even recorded a few of them on my first CD on EMI. But cellists are usually introduced to tangos by Piazzolla’s Grand Tango, which has a rather meagre cello part when compared to his other works. For me, the cello part there is really asking to be “filled in” with improvisations during many of the long notes and, especially, the repeating octaves at the end where the piano gets quite funky. It wasn’t until I started listening to Piazzolla’s own performances with his incomparable violinist Fernando Suarez Paz that I realized how gripping his music could be on the cello. In particular, Paz played with a quality that I miss in a lot of other versions–he is never too sentimental with his timing or glissandi and goes about it as if he is simply letting the music play itself. Ever since, I have been re-arranging Piazzolla’s works for the cello, including his Four Seasons of Buenos Aires.

What do you do off stage that provides inspiration on stage?

At the top of the first movement of Schumann’s 5 Pieces in Folkstyle is printed a Latin phrase: vanitas vanitatum. I knew the biblical roots of that phrase, but it didn’t hold much meaning for me and had always remained a rather abstract concept in my mind – that was until one day, when I was in London’s National Gallery and saw a vanitas painting for the first time. The painting by Frans Hals revealed the essence of a vanitas in a most concise manner and created a direct link in my imagination to the shape of the music in Schumann’s work. The ominous inevitability of death is always present in both the painting and the music – represented in the former by a skull and in the latter by the three notes C, B and A at the end of each phrase.

This experience came at just the right time for me as well: I had recently moved to Europe to continue my studies with Frans Helmerson in Madrid and Cologne, and that meant I was to be surrounded by an abundance of European cultural treasures that have everything to do with much of the music I was learning. We all know that there are very real and underlying links between the various art forms, but the chance to witness and synthesize them on your own cannot be replaced by simply reading about them in a book. Ever since that moment at the National Gallery, I have tried to be as open-minded as possible when it comes to viewing art so as not to preclude any fortuitous revelations; living in Berlin certainly provides plenty of opportunities! Of course, the encounters are not always so unambiguously fruitful; I’ve also seen a lot of bizarre stuff that might not be analogous to any corresponding musical works–then again, I have a feeling even those might come in handy one day!

Do you have a favourite concert venue to perform in and why?

Growing up in New York, I always thought of Carnegie Hall as more than just a concert venue–it was featured in recordings, on TV, in movies, and going there was always a treat. In fact, as a child, I thought the premise of the old adage “How do I get to Carnegie Hall…practice” was rather silly since it’s situated in the middle of the island of Manhattan! When I played in the Stern Auditorium/Perelman Stage for the first time, I was surprised by the warmth of the sound because I had heard that it could be difficult to project there as a soloist; instead, it was as though each note coming out of my cello was able to reach the last person all the way in the back of the nose-bleed section. Perhaps my time in the city predisposed me to love it no matter what.

Amsterdam’s Concertgebouw is one of those legendary halls whose acoustics you always hear about. Indeed, this is probably the hall in which I have played most effortlessly in terms of tonal production; one word that comes to mind when talking about the sound there is “majestic.” The only tricky part is to be careful walking down those famous steps to get from the backstage to the podium!

Finally, I will always remember the Schubert Cello Quintet concert I played with Mario Brunello and Giuliano Carmignola in the Abbazia di Sant Antimo in Tuscany. Since most churches can carry your sound until the cows come home, this was about something else. As the opening chord of the quintet shimmered, the sun began to set and shone through the window above us during a moment that could only be described as divine. When the twilight turned into darkness, we were reaching the end of the slow movement, and the stone walls had gone from alabaster to a hazy cerulean, and finally, the warm orange glow of candlelight. I am not sure if it was the music or the atmosphere, but this was one of those times in life when I didn’t want it to ever end.

What do you feel needs to be done to grow classical music’s audiences?

First of all, I am always interested to expand the repertoire of the cello since it is rather limited in comparison to those of the piano and violin. Coincidentally, I find that a lot of the works I have helped to re-arrange have also been very popular with audiences, such as the Piazzolla Four Seasons for cello and string ensemble (sometimes with an electric guitar added) and the Dream of the Red Chamber Capriccio, which is full of melodies that are very well-known in China. Whether intentionally or not, my attempts to expand the repertoire for myself also ended up attracting new audiences to my concerts.

There is another area in the classical music world that puzzles me when it comes to the question of audience growing. If you look at the visual art world, the public cannot seem to get enough of contemporary art, no matter how abstract or even whacky it is; collectors are outbidding each other for works that do not necessarily have what we might call “traditional” or “classical” appeal like what one might find in a Rembrandt or Monet, while the number of non-collectors who visit exhibitions of these works climbs relentlessly. For instance, price records in the tens or hundreds of millions of dollars are set every year for works by abstract artists such as Pollock, Twombly, Richter, Rothko, etc. However, when it comes to composers of equally abstract musical works, why is there not an equivalent frenzy from the general public? Undoubtedly, there is a passionate niche audience for these works, but why do so many casual visitors wander into a gallery but not into a concert hall? What is it about a visual experience that makes it easier for viewers to open up their minds than an aural experience? I don’t have an answer for this, but if we can find a way to emulate the art world’s success in convincing the public to embrace new and challenging works, there may be something there to help answer this question.

As for myself, I am collaborating with artists from different genres (visual art, architecture, dance, poetry, etc.) for Musicus Heritage in Hong Kong, a series of concerts I curate in historic sites around the city. The merging of music and history has already proven to be very popular for the public, many of whom had never previously attended classical music concerts. I am really excited to work with an even more diverse group of artists for our future series.

What is your most memorable concert experience?

Many performances have been memorable for different reasons. When I played Hadyn C Major Concerto with Lorin Maazel conducting, there was a moment of clarity that I will always remember. In the middle of a rather brisk third movement, I felt the orchestra and I starting to diverge in tempo. Without even a hint of concern, Maestro Maazel made a single gesture that got the orchestra and me back on track. The contrast between the calm he exhibited and the breathless velocity of the piece was a real eye opener. These moments with the great maestros like Maazel can never be learned from school, and I am so grateful for them.

Another memorable concert for me was when I played the Shostakovich 1st Cello Concerto with Santtu-Matias Rouvali in Finland. Having already heard much about his reputation as one of the finest conductors of his generation, Santtu was just a revelation and absolute joy to work with. I had wanted to play the concerto in a much more lyrical manner and bring out voices that one easily misses when the piece is treated more like a march toward Armageddon. I truly believe that the energy he displayed for every phrase coupled with his impeccable technique helped me get to a higher gear I didn’t know I had for that performance.

As a musician, what is your definition of success?

A lot of times, a listener’s reaction immediately after a concert is not necessarily the same as that after a prolonged period of post-concert digestion. It’s very easy to be carried away by a live performance when everyone is uplifted by the sheer volume of sound and the reactions of those sitting around us, and maybe people keep going back to concerts in order to relive that momentary euphoria. But when a performer makes a true connection with the audience, the experience stays with them and comes back over and over, whether shared in conversations or simply in one’s consciousness. When a stranger tells you that she remembers a particular performance you played from years ago in minute details, then the success of that concert is clear. I think this is a very rare and difficult type of success to achieve, but one that is quite worthy of pursuing. At the end of the day, what really matters are not the material things in life, but the memories that we hold on to–if great concerts are part of those memories, how much richer would one’s life have been!

What advice would you give to young/aspiring musicians?

One of the most important aspects of being a musician is the creative process. We have to be creative on stage with our music, but we also have to be creative off-stage these days. The process is only getting more complicated with new technologies, so don’t spend your time only in the practice room…go outside and see what’s happening in the world!

What’s the one thing in the music industry we’re not talking about which you think we should be?

Thanks to the internet’s capacity for allowing everyone in the world to air their thoughts on everything, it’s not really possible to find a topic these days that no one is talking about. But there is one topic that constantly surprises audiences when they hear about it, and surprises me that they DON’T know about already: the physical maladies that musicians suffer as a result of engaging in physical activities, aka playing musical instruments, that are inherently bad for the human body. I cannot think of any musician who does not have physical problems arising from their craft. In the sports world, athletes’ injuries are an entire subset of news reporting where fans are informed of every single pull and tear; these vulnerabilities make the athletes more relatable and the drama of the competition more compelling. Would it be so bad for the audience to know about the actual physical pain that musicians endure in order to bring them a sublime experience on stage? If they knew that playing the violin can lead to jaw dislocation or worse, or that playing the cello can create an asymmetric torso with associated back pains, how would that affect their appreciation of the performance? I don’t think it’s about a desire for sympathy, but rather, it’s to give a better understanding of the process of practicing this art form.

What is your idea of perfect happiness?

I first felt something akin to perfect happiness when I woke up one day at the end of high school and realized that I was about to go to college and have the chance to learn about anything I want. It was the first time where I felt there was no pressure to achieve something that was only a means to an end. I think this is why I came back eventually to the cello after studying economics in college. In music, there will always be boundless possibilities to be creative for its own sake and not in the service of something else; it’s this freedom and purity of intention of music-making which bring me closest to the sense of happiness I felt on that morning.

Hailed a “Miracle” by Gramophone, Trey Lee enthralls audiences with a virtuosity that combines intellectual sophistication and a profound depth of emotions. His concerto debut at Carnegie Hall Stern Auditorium/Perelman Stage won him a standing ovation, with The New York Times critic Anthony Tommasini declaring him “the excellent cellist…with enveloping richness and lyrical sensitivity.” The late Lorin Maazel praised him as “a marvelous protagonist…a superb cellist” after conducting Trey in Haydn’s C Major Concerto with the Philharmonia Orchestra. In his performance with the Netherlands Philharmonic at the Royal Concertgebouw Hall, Trey was acclaimed by the critics as a “Star Musician.”

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