Classical Music / Interview

Zuill Bailey – Cello

Originally from Woodbridge, VA, cellist Zuill Bailey is the Artistic Director of El Paso Pro-Musica and Professor of Cello at the University of Texas at El Paso. In addition to his responsibilities at home in El Paso, TX, he spends a great deal of time traveling as a solo performer, as well as working as the Artistic Director of the Sitka, Alaska Summer Music Festival and Series, the Northwest Bach Festival (Spokane, Washington).

Earlier this month, I had the pleasure of meeting him before a performance he gave with the Columbus Symphony Orchestra of Dvorak’s Cello Concerto. This is our conversation.

Why the cello?  I grew up with music in the house. My sister played the violin. Mom played the piano and Dad was a music educator and clarinetist. In the 70s there was Suzuki teaching, a way of teaching young kids how to play at a very young age. My parents took me to concerts all the time, to the community and National Symphony in DC.  It wasn’t a matter of if, but rather what instrument I would eventually play. My sister already played the violin, so that was out. So, I started playing the piano and cello at age four. Once, I was back stage and ran into a girl playing the cello – and broke her cello. That sealed it for me though. Mom and Dad said it’s the one thing that stopped me in my tracks and got me to sit still.

Zuill Bailey - Diane Sierra

Photograph by Diane Sierra, Handout

Where did you go to school? Peabody Conservatory (Johns Hopkins) and Juilliard.

Instrument: A 1693 Matteo Gofriller Cello, formerly owned by Mischa Schneider of the Budapest String Quartet.

What do you gain from performing? I’ve always found that when I play it creates a comfortable feeling – complete comfort – from my perspective and from the way it’s voiced. It’s most like a human voice in its range. Physical aspects – wrapping myself around it and feeling it vibrate – it’s an incredible feeling. It’s the beauty of life that is brought forth through the cello. That became why I wanted to do it – there’s a mutual therapeutic x factor that music brings.

What’s the best thing about performing in front of an audience? What do you hope they gain? Peace. I hope the audience gains peace. No – that’s too simplistic of an answer. I look for the fact that people are able to escape – at a concert – with such a multifaceted form of entertainment. We’re used to being fed information. At a concert, it’s interesting and healing to take a step back and have the music be a soundtrack to where you are as a person or in your own person where you go into your own head and your own thoughts – where we’re not so programmed to go. The visual is the creation, not a distraction. A movie gives us a story – the music adds the soundtrack to our own thoughts. I can face the audience and see how they’re experiencing it in their own ways whether they’re leaning forward, tapping their feet, closing their eyes, etc.

How often do you practice?  I play all the time, but my processes are in my head. I can sit in a quiet room and hear it just by looking at the score. The classical music catalog is enormous. Recording just documents pieces I play a lot or that are special to me. I’m always looking for the next project that allows me to grow.

Zuill Bailey

Image courtesy of Huffington Post

What are some of your favorite places to perform? My dream check list has been done – Carnegie, Lincoln Hall, Kennedy Center. I once played with a women’s prison orchestra in Anchorage. Music to these women means hope and freedom. Playing in villages in Alaska and in Havana, Cuba were also memorable.

It’s all about how people react to the music. In many ways I enjoy the smaller venues more because the people don’t get the performers as much.

How much do you travel? I travel about 250 days out of the year.

I’m running my first Bach Festival in Spokane, WA – 1st two weeks in March – gorgeous city. Every day is a new adventure for me. My upcoming schedule, for example is: hosting a pianist from England tomorrow – Chopin Nocturnes; Harrisburg, PA next week – Dvorak concerto again. Then, Fairbanks, AK; then Boise, etc. I’m still missing RI, but have hit 49 of 50 states.

Strange thing – I once woke up at home and wasn’t sure where I was!

How difficult is it to play with a different orchestra for every performance? I’m old enough, have been doing this enough so a lot of my friends are in these orchestras. Tonight I have friends coming in from Cleveland to hear me play. I love sharing and

I love that music brings people together.

I have some very strong friendships in some of these places. I also know a lot of the musicians in the CSO who also play with the ProMusica Chamber Orchestra. The cello is what brings all of this together.

What do you think of the CSO so far? It’s wonderful! I’ve played in Columbus – with ProMusica Chamber Orchestra – several times. I frequent festivals. Nice thing about this career – you do go back, you see how the cities have changed, how people’s lives have broadened.

Which concert are you most looking forward to playing this year? I have a couple of projects – Michael Daugherty has been commissioned by the Nashville Symphony to write a piece. We’re recording it next year. We’ll be working on that this spring.

What do you do for outreach? At 17 – I didn’t realize that this whole world would open up. …that it would be on my shoulders to cultivate this music. I perform outreach in three regions: West TX; Spokane, WA and Alaska.

The cello has opened the door to a lot of fun adventures. In Baltimore, I was asked to coach Ned Beatty to LOOK like he was playing the cello for Homicide and then I played the soundtrack. Then I was an extra. And then, when I moved to NY, I was asked to be on OZ. I saw that as the ultimate outreach – to bring music to people who may or may not have gone into a concert hall.  I try to figure out ways to bring music to the people.

Scene from Oz. Children, don’t try this at home. 🙂

My students love to hear stories. They have no idea that I may have been in Australia the day before the lesson. It’s fascinating for me to see their reactions to these stories. It’s real world. A student may ask about something to which I respond “Hmm…I’m playing this on Friday, I’ll let you know.” I’ll come back with – NO! DON’T DO IT!  Or – it totally worked.

It’s very unusual to do more than one – teach, perform, artistic director… but I use them all to do a lot of outreach.

When visiting other cities, I like to visit schools. I always like to go to schools when I travel – or hospitals – anywhere to make the music accessible. Kennedy center would send musicians in our schools. This world-renown musician would come to our classroom – wow!

During festivals, we focus on making sure every artist visits as many schools as possible. The focus on arts in schools will ebb and flow. Kids are curious about the variety of sounds that can be made with a cello. And you never know what kids are going to ask.

What do you say to people who don’t think they like classical music?  I always asked them – well, what do you like? And they typically set their own trap. They’ll mention different kinds of music, movies, video games… Did you know that was a cello that was playing that theme? Classical music is the use of these instruments, not necessarily Beethoven or Haydn – a general term for stringed instruments. It’s the highest form of creating these video games and movies.

Have you ever noticed when pop groups try to be classier? They either go unplugged or incorporate symphonic sounds.

What cello music should I have in my music library? Bach cello suites – everyone BUT Mozart has written something exclusively for the cello. Dvorak – the piece tonight is arguably the greatest cello piece written. It’s a symphony with a great cello part. Even Chopin, the piano god, the last piece he wrote is a cello sonata. The cello could, in the end, be a composers own voice for their story. The cello, being mellower (than the violin) is more difficult to write for.

Who are your favorite composers? Typical response is “whatever I’m working on.” Bach – beginning and the end. He wrote such perfect works for a single instrument that kind of encapsulates – everything! I typically go to the deep end when working on a composers – about their life, what they wrote, etc. They used such masterful expression through music – it was therapeutic to write this music. If you know this profile, you can empathize and understand them. Great music is great, but if you know WHY something was created, then it takes it to a whole other stratosphere.

What is your favorite musical era? They’re just all such distinctive flavors. Growing up, my family didn’t travel a lot. I was very comfortable and specific in what I liked. The more I traveled, the more I liked. The variety is so important to have perspective. If you look at my recordings, they’re so different. I just keep broadening. When I step into the next chapter – I bring all that knowledge with me – and perspective – to appreciate the new language of Britten, for example, instead of being dismissive. It wouldn’t be the smartest thing for me to choose a favorite time period. I keep finding things that are interesting to me, but they’re interesting because of what I already know.

Classical music is all about interpretation. Buy several versions of Bach – compare and contrast. Why does this violinist sound different from this one? Why does this version sound different?

In your case, (Vladimir) Ashkenazy vs. Lang Lang – which do you like better? Buy another recording and find out WHY you love it.

Any good show off pieces for the cello? Show off pieces are things that people can’t believe can be done on an instrument. Flight of the bumblebee, etc. I often like to play the beautiful soft ones.

People can’t believe the cello can create that warmth and depth of feeling.

Do you have favorite cellists? Anyone you particularly admire? Rostropovich was the local cellist in DC. He’s probably the most historic, legendary cellist who walked the earth. He was a huge hero for all cellists – set the bar higher than I think anyone has. Through him, I was able to hear all the cellists we all know…

Rostropovich was bigger than music. He stood up for everything political – like Pablo Casals – used the cello to make a difference.

With my cello, I want to make a difference. I want to uh…it’s a loaded question! There are people I respect because their motives are pure. They’re genuinely trying to bring good to others. Those are my role models.

How about conductors? The more the conductor has worked with more people, the greater they are. The more they understand why people make the decisions they make. The more limited or inexperienced the conductor, the more severe opinions they have. Doesn’t happen very often, but when it has, it’s usually their first performance of that particular piece.

ZB - Telarc

Album Cover – photo courtesy of Telarc.

With a recording, it must be discussed how it’s played. We’re documenting an interpretation, not just a one-evening performance.

Gotta ask

Igor Stravinsky – Rite of spring: Genius?  Or just plain weird?  Oh genius!

Benjamin Britten – (his music) is kind of like a struggle for humanity. You’ll witness the battlefield of understanding why there are these things that happen. Free flow – it’s a genius work. I wish I could take everyone aside to explain to them what I now know vs. what I didn’t know when I started. If I could, they would hear this music as the masterpiece that it is.

The linguist in me has to ask. Zuill – what’s the background of your name?  It’s a family last name. Scotch/Irish.

Ever break a string while performing? Of course! One time, I was so close to the end, I finished on the upper strings. It sounds like a gunshot – it’s almost a tension reliever. First I make sure the cello is ok and then continue.

Do you ever worry about transporting your instrument? Especially knowing how old and valuable it is? I did think a lot especially at first – about the care of this instrument. I’ve always had a cello in my hand. I certainly know how to care for it – it’s always with me. I take good care of it – it’s been around for 320 years. The good news is that it’s being played. If not played, it goes to sleep – it doesn’t vibrate, so these instruments have to be played. The world gets to hear it. Documented – in recording, concerts, it’s seen – such as a traveling exhibition.

I’ve had this one since my mid-20s.  I’ve had it for 17 years – mine for life.

It’s contagious – delving into the world of classical music!

What’s your favorite Jeni’s Ice Cream flavor?  Haven’t tried it yet.

Note to the city of Columbus: We clearly need to introduce Zuill to Jeni’s the next time he’s in town.

If you’d like to learn more about Zuill Bailey and the music he plays, I recommend you visit his website at www.zuillbailey.com His newest recording, Britten: Cello Symphony & Sonata, along with his other CDs can be purchased via his website.

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