World-renowned cellist and Stony Brook professor of music, cello and chamber music, Colin Carr, has his name plastered across a screen outside the university’s Staller Center for the Arts. Every few minutes, the screen flashes an advertisement of Carr’s upcoming concert, a Bach extravaganza, scheduled for Saturday, Oct. 21.
Carr, who will be playing the Bach suites, compared preparing for the concert to training for a marathon.
“It’s impossible, it’s unthinkable to play this concert without the kind of advance preparation that’s comparable to what you do when you’re running,” he said.“…You need to do more and more, and then more and more, and then you’re there. But you can’t go out and just run a marathon. It just doesn’t work.”
Perry Goldstein, a Stony Brook professor of musicianship, composition and theory, and the chairperson of the university’s department of music, called playing the six cello suites in one evening “an artistic coup.”
“These pieces are played by every serious cellist,” he said.
With experience performing around the globe, Carr certainly lives up to that title. He regularly makes appearances at the BBC Proms, an annual, eight-week orchestral series held in London. He has also been part of high profile groups, including the London Philharmonic, Toronto Symphony and Halle Orchestra.
“He’s regarded as a world class cellist,” Goldstein said. “What he brings to the university is his artistry, as someone who gives performances, and his attractiveness to the most accomplished students who want to study cello here.”
Carr started playing the cello at 5 years old. At age 8, he enrolled in the Yehudi Menuhin School, a specialized music school in Surrey, England. He said that at the time, he would have rather been playing soccer and that he owes his early start as a musician to his mother. “She was the driving force behind me playing, for sure,” Carr said.
He referenced pivotal teaching moments while he was a student, describing his experiences performing with more advanced musicians at the time. Carr started a concert series called “Starry Nights” here at Stony Brook in an effort to replicate the experience for his own students. The popular concert series allows students and faculty to perform together, on stage. Carr estimates that his “Starry Nights” series has been going strong for about 14 years, with one concert held per semester.
“For me, growing up, it was pivotal when I used to play concerts with some of the greatest musicians alive, and I was lucky to do that, because Yehudi Menuhin, who founded that school, was one of the greatest violinists who ever lived,” he said. “I went to Marlboro, which is a wonderful festival in Vermont, and played with Rudolph Serkin, who is also one of the greatest pianists who ever lived. It’s not that I consider myself a Menuhin or a Serkin, but I’ve been around, and I have a certain amount of experience, and my colleagues here on the faculty are all just top drawer musicians. I mean, they’re the best of the best.”
By the age of 12 or 13, Carr said he was fully invested in his career as a cellist, spending up to six hours a day practicing. “I knew this was what I wanted to do with my life,” he said.
By 25, Carr was a professor at the New England Conservatory, the oldest independent music school in the U.S. He gave up the job when he moved back to England with his wife in the late 90s to start a family and continue his work as a professor at the Royal Academy of Music in London. He took on his position at Stony Brook a few years later in 2002, after being approached by faculty member Gilbert Kalish at a cello concert.
Carr commutes to Stony Brook from his home in England twice a month. He stays in Stony Brook for five days at a time, during which he works intensively with his students. He said that a typical lesson lasts about two hours. “I’m intensely involved with the students when I’m here,” Carr said.
Despite the commute, he said he enjoys his position at Stony Brook, commending the university and music department for fostering a unique environment.
“I think both teachers and students have a great deal of freedom here to follow their own special projects,” he said. “I had two students who’ve taken up singing and playing the cello at the same time, and they’ve gone off and developed that as their careers, and I’ve really encouraged them to do that. That’s just something that would not happen in any other conservatory or music department or university that I know of.”
Alison Rowe, a cellist and instructor of the “Elements of Music” undergraduate class – which has studied under Carr for the past three years – referred Carr as a constant source of inspiration.
“In particular, his precise control of tone, color and intonation creates beautiful and interesting interpretations of the standard cello repertoire,” Rowe said. “In lessons, he has encouraged me to be a more creative and expressive artist and to be as specific as I possibly can with my own interpretive decisions. I have grown immensely as a cellist, teacher and musician under his guidance.”
Carr said that each piece in each program involves collaboration between students and faculty in some way, making the music department vital to varied and interesting shows. The upcoming six suite show, he mentioned, begins with a piece for piano and winds, is followed by a jazz set and ends with a larger piece for piano and strings.
“In any normal chamber music concert, that’s pretty difficult to arrange, because it’s just not economical,” he said. “It’s not efficient to bring people from afar to play in one piece, and then you have to pay them, and it just doesn’t make sense.” In total, the program would require close to 20 people – something Carr said would be hard to manage outside of a music department setting.
“There’s an energy on stage from these collaborations which has really been embraced by the audience, not just the audience within the music department, but much more so by the community outside the university,” Carr said. “And so, they come and fill the recital hall for every concert, and they somehow trust that they’re going to get something they like, often not knowing quite what it’s going to be. It’s just been a very wonderful and successful series.”