From El Sistema to star solo cellist, professor, recording artist, and electronic dance music composer – meet the remarkable Dr. Carmine Miranda and learn about his spectacular new album of the Shostakovich and Rachmaninoff Sonatas.
Meet Dr. Carmine Miranda
I had the very great pleasure of speaking with the award-winning cellist, Dr. Carmine Miranda. He is a professor of cello at Belmont University, as well as a soloist, chamber musician, recording artist, and electronic dance music composer. Originally from Venezuela, he now lives in Nashville, Tennessee.
When one thinks of the greatest musicians to come out of El Sistema, the first name that usually comes to mind is Gustavo Dudamel, an incredible musician. But we need to add another name to that list – Carmine Miranda. Despite his great successes, he is incredibly approachable, with a great sense of humor; his giving spirit can be heard in his playing and is evident in his teaching.
He and pianist Robert Marler have just released a spectacular album of the Shostakovich and Rachmaninoff cello sonatas.
The following interview transcript has been lightly edited for clarity and length.
New Shostakovich and Rachmaninoff Album
Cello Museum (CMus)
Congratulations on your new recording of the Shostakovich and Rachmaninoff sonatas with pianist Robert Marler. Please tell us more about this recording project.
Dr. Carmine Miranda (Dr. CM)
One of the important things to mention about this record is that Robert is the pianist of the Nashville Symphony. Of course, he’s been the pianist of the Nashville Symphony for many, many years, but at the same time, he’s also a great colleague and friend of mine at Belmont University.
Some of the engineers that are associated with this project include Alan Shacklock, a multi-Grammy Award-winning producer who is a bit of a rock and roll legend and a rock and roll guitarist, but also has a very extensive classical background. He used to be the lute player for a British baroque ensemble called the Cradle of Conceits. And so he comes from a heavy classical background. But he’s produced records for artists such as Meatloaf, Roger Daltrey of The Who, and several other legends of the music world.
Tommy Dorsey was the mastering engineer of the album. He did some work for Deutsche Grammophon as well as the Berlin Philharmonic. He’s a bit of a local legend here in Nashville.
Both of these guys have ties to Belmont University; Alan is also a professor of sound engineering, and Tommy was a student of Robert, and so it just coincided. This has been a full-circle project for a lot of us.
Choosing Recording Repertoire
How did you choose to record the Shostakovich and Rachmaninoff together? They’re often paired, but how did you choose them?
I think it goes without saying that in our world of cello playing, both pieces have been performed and recorded a lot; they’re two of the biggest sonatas in the Russian cello repertoire. But at the same time, coming from this Russian background, they are two of the best-written works for cello and piano – particularly, the third (the slow) movement of the Rachmaninoff cello sonata, which, to me, is one of the most beautiful movements ever written for cello and piano – in our entire repertoire. At least to me, this movement has a very special place in my heart.
You also recorded the Piatti Caprices and Bach Suites, and I actually first heard about you and your work through Rain Worthington and her piece, “Resolves.” How do you choose what recordings to make?
Rain is a great friend of mine, and she is a fantastic composer and a really, really, really sweet person. So, in the case of Rain, I think that globally, it was an honor for me that Rain dedicated her piece [to me]. I always try to support new music, and I’m an avid performer of contemporary pieces – contemporary composers, particularly women composers, which I feel in our career field have been underrepresented for the longest time.
But when it comes to choosing what kind of repertoire to record, I do have to say that I am a bit selfish in the sense that there is an element that I, along with other players that I’m collaborating with – that we feel like we really love these works. It would be great to record these works. Most importantly, [I seek] the ability to be able to provide something new and have a very clear and concrete voice and research about a particular composer or a particular piece.
Primarily, the driving force for me to be able to choose which pieces I am concentrating on comes from several years or several months of heavy research and study. If I’m researching a particular composer, I usually tend to base my interpretations on this very, very conscious research that I am conducting at the time.
Research for Insights in Performance
You’ve shared some of your research – for example, your article on Robert Schumann’s Cello Concerto published in the Musical Times. Please tell us about that.
In our cello world, for the longest time, there’s been this myth, this kind of a cellistic legend, that Schumann might have written the second movement of the concerto for Clara Schumann. For instance, the descending fifths were meant to represent Clara. And so that started something in me in the sense that I always said, “Well, if we know that Robert Schumann added hidden messages or was an avid fan of cryptology in his compositions, then why wouldn’t he do it for the Cello Concerto?”
At the same time, the Cello Concerto in our cellistic world has a reputation for being quite awkward. So some people have theorized that it’s awkward because of the pianistic influence. But then I analyzed it phrase by phrase, and I started realizing that he did, in fact, encode the name of his wife in the main theme.
Actually, here’s the genius of the composer: he’s writing the piece in the key of a minor, and so he starts the piece with an a minor chord. But at the same time, with that chord, he’s able to encode the first initial of each name of Clara Schumann – Clara Wieck Schumann. At the same time, he’s also able to encode his alter personalities, Eusebius and Florestan.
Once I was able to see the greater picture and conduct this research on the composer – [reading his] letters and comparing the Schumann Cello Concerto with other compositions that he had done previously, it became really clear that the entire concerto is really a love letter and a conversation among Eusebius, Florestan, Robert, and Clara Wieck Schumann.
This is the reason why the piece may feel a little bit disjointed or may feel a little bit conversational. This conversation usually happens between the cello and a particular instrument in the orchestra. There is this constant back and forth – give and take – of this main melodic theme in which he’s encoding all of these names. And then, he expands this through the first, second, and third movements, which are essentially variations of this main theme that happens at the very beginning of the concerto.
For instance, we know that dementia is an unfortunate thing that affects memory for a lot of people. We know that there is a type of dementia that is actually genetic, that affects people at a really young age. Usually, most people that are affected by this disease, unfortunately, end up having an average lifespan of 35 to 40 – maybe 50 years. So this would actually absolutely coincide with the lifespan of the composer.
Now, back in the day, dementia might have been interpreted as something completely different. And so these are some of the conversations that I think maybe need to happen about Robert and his mental state. And, I hope that this research can contribute towards maybe having a different discussion about Robert Schumann and then looking at his compositions from a different kind of plane.
The Cello – From a Picture to a Best Friend
What was your very first experience with the cello?
I get this question a lot. I always say that, in many ways, I didn’t choose the cello, the cello chose me. I was born in Venezuela, Latin America. So Venezuela has more of a European conservatory system of pedagogy. Before you get to pick an instrument, you have to undergo several months to a good year of the basic structure of music, which is music theory. After that year, then comes the time to pick and choose an instrument.
Well, I remember that they took me to this place where they had a picture of all the orchestral instruments. I always thought that the violin, that seems like it could hurt my neck after playing for so long. Then the bass felt a little too big for me, you know? And then the viola – who knows about the viola? So for me, it made sense at the time, I just pointed straight to the cello without knowing much about the instrument.
That’s really what started my journey with the instrument, and it’s been a very beautiful journey. It’s taken me all over the world. I’ve met so many wonderful people all over the United States. Internationally, I’ve made so many friends. Not in a million years would I have imagined that I would be in Nashville, Tennessee. Not in a million years, would I have imagined as a little kid that I was going to get a doctoral degree and was going to teach, and I was going to be traveling to all these places. So the cello has been my best friend and also an outlet for me to be able to express myself, artistically speaking.
Did you get started through El Sistema?
I did. So basically, in Venezuela, at the time when I was growing up is when El Sistema started growing in terms of its international reputation. The way that things worked back in the day, is that a lot of the local conservatories, regardless of the city, had some kind of tie to El Sistema or had an affiliation to El Sistema.
And so my journey with El Sistema in Venezuela started at the local Conservatory in a small industrial town called Valencia, which is about an hour’s drive away from the main capital Caracas in Venezuela.
Please tell us about your teachers.
This is a great question because I avidly like to talk about our cellistic tradition. Everyone has a certain kind of lineage which ultimately ends up culminating in the three main schools of cello playing – the French, the German, and the Russian schools. And so I think it’s very important for students to understand that what they’re learning has been a process of trial and error – and also discoveries. It has been passed down from generation to generation.
So, in order to keep our performing tradition alive, it is always important to honor those people who came before us – who taught us what we know – and for newer generations to keep making greater and better discoveries in cello playing.
On one side, I was a student of Casals – a student of a pupil of Casals. One of the greatest things that I actually learned was a slightly different approach to interpreting the Bach cello suites and looking at them from understanding the heart and soul of what Bach wrote. To rephrase this, at the end of the day, we’re playing on modern instruments, right? With Bach, there is always that question that always arises, because we don’t have the original manuscript: what is correct? What is not correct? But I personally see it as a beautiful thing, because it gives room for each and every single one of us to come up with our own interpretation of what this wonderful composer, gifted to our world.
With that said, Casals was an avid proponent of really studying the historical differences between each one of these dances and then, of course, reinterpreting them from a modern cello perspective. This is, I think, one of the great things that comes from the Casals tradition, which I think goes all the way back to Grützmacher – to the German school of playing, which also influenced some of the Spanish players.
From a different set of teachers that I’ve had, we go all the way to Leonard Rose, who was a student of a student of a student of Piatti. What I tell my students is everyone knows the famous Jacqueline du Pré interpretation of the Elgar Cello Concerto. But there is a really, really nice recording on YouTube, of the premiere of the composer playing with a student of Piatti. It’s worthwhile actually checking out because it gives you a completely different perspective on interpretation. Of course, back in the day, they were playing into a funnel, so the quality might not be as good, but you can see these performance nuances.
I’m very proud of this lineage because I personally consider Alfredo Piatti the equivalent of our Paganini – one of those cellists who greatly contributed towards our technical development. I still haven’t met somebody with whom we don’t coincide in our genealogical cellistic tree. It all goes back to those three main schools, and their contributions to the American School of playing here in the United States, where we borrow a little bit from here, and a little bit from there, and then a little bit from over there.
Three Pillars of Cello Playing
It’s a big melting pot of cello. You mentioned three pillars of cello playing in another interview being intonation, rhythm, and musicality. What practice regime do you recommend to your students to effectively and efficiently work on these three areas?
These are the three pillars that I always talk to my students about. I think that this also applies to any kind of instrumental playing.
I cannot emphasize this enough – the metronome is the source of all great things, and also the source of frustration for a lot of us, because really, the metronome gives us the ability to really expose our playing, concept of rhythm, precision with the right hand, or our precision of the left hand. So one of the things that I always recommend to my students is to never take the metronome element out of their practice routine.
But, then, the second and most important thing is patience – not expecting immediate results because they never happen. I mean, we all play at a certain level, because of a culmination of years and years of countless hours of practicing and perfecting. And I always describe cello playing as 80% psychological and 20% physical. What this gives us is the ability to really train the mind, because the mind is always going to be one step ahead of us, and then the body has to be able to catch up with all these things. If you’re able to train the mind, then the rest is just basically gravy. So patience is a very, very important component.
At a really, really early age, the metronome basically taught me patience, and to have faith in the process – that the process usually works and that it’s a linear process, right? It’s never an immediate thing. Things may or may not happen today, but after a certain amount of training, then all of these technical things will eventually happen.
Also, with intonation work, I’m a strong believer that this is a linear process because it always has to do with a matter of perspective, right? My perspective of intonation may be slightly different than my next-door neighbor, and so on. We all experience life and the world in different ways. Everyone is going to have a slightly different perspective. But then, what do we do when we are put together in a chamber music situation? We have to play with each other – with all these people that have slightly different perspectives. So, we have to be aware of that, when somebody plays on the higher end of the intonation spectrum or the lower end. With intonation work, I’m a strong believer that this is something where, the more you can train the ear, the more you will be able to catch these nuances.
This is why I’m a proponent of scales. The way I tell my students is, “Listen, you learn all 12 major and minor scales – you learn how to play the cello. Then the rest is just a philosophical conversation of interpretation. But scale work is one of those things that is going to provide you the foundation – the foundation for all to be able to understand the overall mapping of the fingerboard and also your right hand – the separation of hands, combination of hands.”
I think it all comes back to the metronome, which some people avoid like the plague, and then some people end up having the humility to really accept.
Getting to the Other Side of Negativity
One other topic you discussed in another interview really struck me – that you had to move beyond many people saying, “No!” to you to get to success on the other side of layers of negativity. What advice do you have for young musicians who are trying to make their way in the world in terms of this – getting through to the other side of the negativity?
That is a wonderful question. I think this is at the core of all old musicians. A lot of us who have pursued or are pursuing a musical career will experience some kind of negativity and a lot of rejection. It’s just part of dealing with people – some people will like your work, and some people will not like what you’re doing, no matter how much you try.
Of course, as musicians, we always want to appeal to as many people as we possibly can, but it is impossible to please everyone. One of the things that I talk about with my students is that we have to be able to kind of put on that heavy metal suit, have really thick skin, and not take some of these things personally, because everything is a matter of opinion.
But, most importantly, I take great pride in the fact that I’ve always marched to the beat of my own drum. So I was never concerned about what my next-door neighbor was doing. I’ve always been a believer that there’s always an opportunity for everyone. The pandemic was one of those things that I think showed our music community that we need to get closer together and, more than anything, support our classical music community – instead of bashing people left and right.
So the best advice that I usually tell young cellists is: stay true to yourself. If you truly believe in something deep in your heart, that’s most likely that moral compass – the universe telling you or trying to guide you into what you’re supposed to be doing. Most importantly, it takes a ton of work, what we do. It takes a lot of hours by ourselves with our instruments trying to figure out the dynamics of it. I’m a strong believer that each one of us has a certain kind of destiny that we’re in control of, and as long as you stay true to that moral compass, and you do the work that is required, eventually, people will start recognizing, “Oh, wow, okay, I might not agree with this guy’s interpretation, but, it is undeniable that he or she is able to do certain things really, really well.”
I think that’s the beauty of recording traditional repertoire that has been recorded many, many times, and has been performed many, many times. It helps to keep our tradition alive. Not only that, it helps to bring a different perspective. Each one of us has something slightly different to say about a particular piece. That’s what makes us human. That’s what gives classical music this kind of beauty, that we can hear, five, ten, a hundred different versions of the Dvořák Cello Concerto, and never be bored, seeing what kind of philosophical concepts somebody else is going to come up with.
A Versatile Professor
Now you are faculty at Belmont University. Do your teaching duties include classes beyond teaching cello? If so, what else do you teach?
Well, funny enough, I am the classical cello professor, but also the commercial cello professor being that I’ve always had an affinity for trying to incorporate cello playing in a different variety of different genres and styles. I am also one of the music technology professors, again, because of my music production background. And, of course, I am the director of chamber music for strings, since I’ve always been very passionate about not only soloistic playing, but chamber music playing and making beats.
It’s very interesting because when I was younger, I really didn’t do a lot of video game playing – I do it now. But, when I was really little, I always found synthesizers, just the fact that you could make different sounds from one keyboard, I found that always incredibly, incredibly interesting. Music production was my “video games” growing up. I found that it gave me time to just have fun with music, but also, in turn, it made me understand the classical side of things, because it forced me to think more like a composer. And so I’ve often found [these two types of music-making] helped each other.
One of the things that really sets us apart here at Belmont is that we are able to provide our students with a well-rounded, comprehensive approach to music learning. For a musician of today, seeing how the music world has been evolving, (and this is what I tell my students), it’s always important to always keep an open mind, and be able to be a [person] of many talents. As long as you figure out the cello thing first, right? And then you can expand from there.
But yes – chamber music, cello lessons, and quite a bit of music technology work that I do here at Belmont.
45trona Ut – Composition Meets Performance
You also go by the name 45trona Ut (pronounced “Astrona ut”) in the world of electronic dance music (EDM). You’ve mostly answered the next question – how does your career with cello and EDM overlap? Is there anything else you’d like to add about that?
At one point in history, composition and performance were one subject altogether. Later, especially during the end of the Classical era and the start of what we call the Romantic era, this is where these two things diverged. Then we have a really strong emphasis on performance and perfection, and then another strong emphasis on perfection of composition.
But I am, again, a strong proponent of really being able to learn a little bit of both. [It] is important, because the role of a performer, at the end of the day, is to be able to understand the psychology associated with that particular composer. Oftentimes, composers, regardless of the time period, or genre, are influenced by their surroundings.
There is a psychological component associated with performance for us to be able to get past that to the two-dimensional plane that exists in the sheet music, and really trying to understand and figure out the composer’s style, how this composer likes to phrase things, and really understanding that particular composer’s language. So I believe that really understanding a little bit of composition, regardless of the genre, is always great – it’s always great to be able to mix those two components together.
How do you find balance as a soloist, a recording artist, a professor, someone who’s into and produces EDM, and all that you do?
That’s a very good question. I think my background and where I was born, and, I guess, my overall journey as a musician, has taught me a lot of great tools to be able to be really organized with my time. We’ll see, in 10 more years from now. It’s a personality thing as well for me; I always have to stay busy.
So don’t get me wrong – I love binge-watching my TV shows at the end of the day and whatnot, but I always have to feel like I am doing something productive during the day. I think that this makes it possible for me to be able to really strategize my days and also not neglect my family [and friends].
I actually talk about this to my students. Once you leave the safety bubble of a university, then life is going to get progressively tougher in the sense that you’re going to have to prioritize things.
And so, usually, I wake up really early. I usually wake up around five in the morning, and then go to sleep really, really late, which is not the best habit to have. But I like strategizing the day – making sure that you’re getting the practicing, the rehearsals, and then some binge-watching shows, and then, a little bit of work here and there. It’s actually not that difficult to be productive and be able to accomplish several things at once.
Cellos and Bows
What is your favorite cello that you’ve ever played? And also, what’s the most unusual cello you’ve ever played?
Well, I’ve been fortunate enough to have played some really, really fine instruments in the past, or at least to try them out. And I think it’s really important for young cellists to really get an understanding of how these fantastic instruments work. I’ve played Montagnanas, Gofrillers, Hill & Sons, a Strad, and a Vuillaume. This is very, very important because I think there is a misconception that if I get a really expensive instrument, I’m going to magically sound great, and it doesn’t work like that.
Actually, the more expensive the instrument, it might make certain aspects easier, but then there are some other aspects that you’re really going to have to work for. So I always compare it to driving a Ferrari versus a Porsche. The Ferrari is going to have a ton of speed, but the steering wheel is going to be a little bit more difficult to control, right? So there’s always going to be a give and take, and I think really more important than the cello itself is a setup. Really having a great setup for the instrument that you’re currently playing can make a huge difference technically, in terms of the response, the tone, and projection.
I’m very, very happy with the instrument that I am currently playing – it is my favorite instrument. The instrument that I currently play was actually made by a friend of mine, a really, really amazing luthier – Jules Azzi, a Lebanese maker. I have a multicultural thing happening here, particularly with the cello. [Azzi] started the cello in New York City, and he finished it in Cincinnati, Ohio.
This was an instrument that I fell in love with. It has been able to help out with some technical things, but at the same time, it’s a really difficult instrument to play, believe it or not. So this cello that I play is really, really difficult for some things. But it’s kind of like a married relationship, right? You’re going to have some give and take – some difficulties here and there. But eventually, you have to make it work. And so I’m very, very happy with the instrument that I play. I really do think that this is the instrument that I will probably play for a long, long time moving forward.
What bow do you play?
I play on a Brazilian bow; it’s not very expensive – it’s essentially a $1,500 bow. That’s one of the great misconceptions: that you need to have a $30,000 or $200,000 bow. Again, it’s a matter of taste, but also, it’s a matter of pairing – what bow is going to work well with a particular instrument? I’ve tried $500-600 bows that sound and feel like $30,000 bows.
So, not that I am putting down the importance of acquiring fine instruments and fine bows, and the history associated with them, but I am a strong believer that there are a lot of myths, where I think people want to spend a ton of money on an instrument or a certain bow expecting that things are going to just miraculously happen, like Harry Potter – you just wave a wand. It doesn’t work like that.
I don’t think there is a single instrumentalist that has experienced something like this happening. You have to put in the work. It’s like that famous Heifetz story. After a concert, a lady approaches Heifetz, and she says, “Mr. Heifetz, that violin sounded wonderful.” And Heifetz grabs the violin, puts it to his ear, and says, “No, I don’t think I hear anything.” He was trying to make a point that it’s always the cellist who should be in control.
I found this bow that I really, really liked, and I’ve tried a lot of expensive bows, but I always tend to gravitate to this particular bow that is not very expensive, but it fits my hand really well. I feel that with this bow, I’m able to accomplish a lot of things, and maybe my more expensive bow that I have here also might not be able to do. So it’s always going to be a question of taste, hand shape, and then the instrument that you’re playing.
I completely agree. It’s then how everything fits together – what will fit together for one player might not be a good pairing for another player.
How to Follow and Support Dr. Carmine Miranda
Professor Miranda generously donated an autographed copy of his new album for a giveaway. We did a random prize drawing to determine the winner. Congratulations to Eva Knapwurst of Madison, Wisconsin, USA, the winner of this signed CD and a Cello Museum T-shirt!
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