First Loves: Cellist Zuill Bailey's Front Row Revelation

We are continuing the theme of "First Loves." Musicians and readers have been telling stories about the first piece of classical music they fell in love with. Tell us your own story in the comments section below. Cellist Zuill Bailey's "First Love" came from the bow of the master cellist Mstislav Rostropovich.

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hide captionZuill Bailey sneaked into a front row seat — and got the concert of his young life.

Courtesy of the artist
Zuill Bailey

Zuill Bailey sneaked into a front row seat — and got the concert of his young life.

Courtesy of the artist

Memories sometimes have a tendency to transcend into the unreal. But in the case of my musical "first love," I knew, right as it was unfolding, that I would be changed forever.   I was a teenager in the early 1980s in Washington, D.C., and as on many occasions, I was led into the Kennedy Center Concert Hall and shown to my seat.

But there was something different about that night, an unusual buzz of excitement. All of the concertgoers seemed to have been wound too tightly — very few people were actually sitting in their seats. Everyone was standing, chatting, wide-eyed with vivid gestures.

Moments later, the gong of “please take your seats” rang through the air. As I sat in my three piece “church” suit in the back of the hall, I couldn't help but notice the empty seat in the front row. I looked back to see that the doors were shut, and everyone had taken their places.  At that moment, without thought, I scurried down to the only open seat — the spot directly in front of the solo chair where the great cellist Mstislav Rostropovich would soon sit.

My heart was pounding. As the lights dimmed and the stage door opened, Rostropovich glided out of the darkness with cello in hand.

Dvorak: Cello Concerto, excerpt (Mstislav Rostropovich/Berlin Philharmonic)

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Then applause from the orchestra and audience erupted. Everyone around me stood, but I couldn’t move. I stared without blinking as he accepted the warmth. The next forty minutes for me were a dream.   The majestic Dvorak Cello Concerto, pouring from one of the few larger-than-life musicians, made me realize what kind of power music can hold. The exhilaration of that live performance brought together both the fragility and strength of life — the love and sorrow, yet always a sense of hope.

Whenever I find myself thinking about that moment, I always smile. Even at such a young age, I knew that this expression and feeling through music is what makes us human.  I knew that day I was one of the luckiest people to simply be alive.

Zuill Bailey is a cellist and is the artistic director of the El Paso Pro Musica and professor of cello at the University of Texas at El Paso.

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