Virtuoso at Life

Virtuoso at Life

When cello virtuoso Aldo Parisot was invited to teach at Yale University in 1958, he tried to talk them out of it. He was giving concerts all over the world, and he didn’t have any academic degrees to hang on the wall.

“Are you sure you want me?” he asked the Elis. They surely did, and Parisot, who is 87, is teaching at Yale still, more than a half-century later. His 21 students hail from all over the world, drawn to the Yale School of Music by the Brazilian-born maestro whose love of music – and life – is contagious.

His renown as a teacher is surpassed only by his career as a performer. As a pre-teen, he was already a professional musician. At 18, he was playing with the Orchestra of Rio de Janeiro. At 33, he debuted with the New York Philharmonic at Carnegie Hall. In 1966, he created a sensation at Tanglewood, playing a nettlesome solo sonatina written expressly for him.

Today, his students take center stage. As the Yale Cellos, they tour the world with their maestro. Founded 26 years ago by Parisot, the ensemble garnered a Grammy nomination in 1988 and made its debut at Carnegie Hall a decade later. Fourteen years ago, Parisot asked his friend and fellow cellist Yo-Yo Ma to play a benefit concert at Woolsey Hall for his proteges.

That evening, the elder virtuoso conducted the younger one, who was accompanied on piano by the conductor’s wife, Elizabeth Sawyer Parisot. An acclaimed musician, Mrs. Parisot is also a member of the Yale Music School faculty. The concert gave birth to the Aldo Parisot Cello Enrichment Fund, which is supported each year by an annual concert and the sale of Parisot’s riotously colorful paintings. It generates $17,000 annually.

Q. What makes a good teacher?

A. You teach exactly the way you play, once you analyze how you play. The students, to me, at Yale are the residents of Yale. We teachers are the guests. They need all the attention possible. I have at least a half-dozen cellists touring all over the world, big careers. They are 10 times better than I am, it goes without saying. I had my days, my great success in life, and now it goes to the next generation. My students don’t bow to me. I am nothing special. We have a conversation, my students and I. I want them to feel like I am their friend. But I never lie to them. When it is no good, it is no good. I encourage them. I tell them they can do better. They are my children. I love them.

Q. Your stepfather, Thomazzo Babini, taught you, among other things, the importance of eliminating “unnecessary tension” while playing the cello. Is that a hard notion to instill in Type A Yalies?

A. You need to obey the natural laws of the body in any profession. When you don’t use those laws, you start fighting the instrument, and the instrument fights back. Once my students understand this, they can become master virtuosos. Technique is at the service of music. It’s like your vocabulary. How can you read Shakespeare without a vocabulary?

Q. Have you found this relaxing concept to be helpful in other physical endeavors, like golf?

A. Absolutely, the same. In sport, you have to use your body properly. The champions of sport do what we do when we play an instrument, same thing. You have to breathe correctly, anticipate. There is a great relationship between being an athlete and making music, sure.

Q. You once opined that one should not make music happen but rather let it happen. That sounds more like a jazz mantra than a classical one.

A. You don’t walk on the stage and stare at your bow. You look at the audience, bow to the pianist and start playing. You let it happen. You let it flow, and it comes out beautifully and naturally.

Q. Do composers or teachers control the music too tightly, constraining the performers’ freedom to improvise, to find their own voice?

A. Music is a question of taste. You go to a competition with 11 judges, and they have 11 different opinions. In the Bach suites for the cello, there are just a prelude and all the dances. Nothing is marked really. He’s telling you to “figure out what I had in mind.” That’s the beauty. I wish every composer was the same. Some composers give too much information to the player. I insist that my students should never imitate me, only technically and mechanically, but never musically. They have to find their own way of playing music. One Aldo Parisot in the world is plenty

Q. You once opined that Frank Sinatra didn’t know what he was doing when he sang freely, and wonderfully, as if he were floating above the orchestra, but he did it well. Can you expound on that?

A. He was a natural, never studied music, could not read music, but he had this innate ability when he sang with an orchestra of making the most beautiful rubato. He sang with complete freedom, but in the end, he was always landing in the right spot with the orchestra. I tell my students to listen to him sing. There are no answers to music-making, because there are so many different ways you can interpret a composer. Thank God we don’t know the answer. We are always looking forward to finding that answer, but we never will. We will die first.

Q. What kinds of music, other than classical, would I find in your record collection?

A. The music of America that I like very much is jazz, the real jazz, from way in the beginning, New Orleans. I was a great friend of Benny Goodman. He was my neighbor in Wilton. I used to play classical music with him almost every weekend. He was something phenomenal. And Dave Brubeck, I love his music.

Q. You are also an accomplished painter. Do you still find time to paint?

A. Yes, I paint. Forty years ago, I saw an exhibition of students’ work, all contemporary art. I said, ‘Why can’t I do that?’ I went home, and I started painting. Experts have told me I have a good sense of color, design and rhythm. There is a great deal of relationship between music and painting. When I am painting, I don’t hear the telephone. I don’t know when to eat, and I don’t hear my wife. It’s wonderful for your nerves. What do you think?

Q. I think I should take up painting. . . . You have described the arc of technical musical ability as a rainbow.

A. The colors of the rainbow. I have my paintings here on the walls of my studio for a purpose. When my students play a phrase, I tell them to look at those colors, take a look at these miserable paintings of mine. I want colors when they play, not black and white. Use your imagination. Don’t just play one note after another. You have to make music with the notes; you have to make phrases. We do it when we talk. The voice goes up; the voice goes down, right? Music must be the same. We are all bathroom singers. You take a shower, and you sing like hell. That’s what is natural. When in doubt, sing the phrase. Imitate your own voice. The finest instrument in the world we carry with us, our vocal chords. I sing my best in the bathroom.

Q. How old are you?

A. I’m 52. Next year I’ll be 55, and the year after that I’ll be 52 again. That’s the way I feel. I don’t even know when I was born, and I don’t want to find out. Music makes you younger. I feel young. I don’t like to be around old people. You know why? They talk about blood pressure and their cholesterol. I don’t want to hear that kind of stuff. I love life, not what happened yesterday, but what’s going to happen minutes from now. That’s what I’m interested in. I am a man of the future. I look forward to every day. [Author's Note: he was 91 not 87 when I interviewed him. He died in 2018 at age 100; he taught to the very end, 60 years of that at the Yale School of Music]