Zuill Bailey and the MSO: Music that tells a life story

October 11, 2012|By KATE COLEMAN |
  • Texas-based cellist Zuill Bailey will perform Saturday and Sunday with the Maryland Symphony Orchestra. He will play the Cello Concerto in E minor by Edward Elgar, which Bailey described as an autobiographical composition.
Submitted photo

The music cellist Zuill Bailey plays is close to his heart.


The cello is the only instrument he can think of that one wraps his arms around and hugs, he said during a recent phone interview from his Texas home.

“All the vibrations are placed on your heart,” he explained. “So as you play, you feel it, you hear it, you experience it, you become one with it.”

Bailey will join Maryland Symphony Orchestra Music Director Elizabeth Schulze and the MSO this weekend for “Famous Last Words,” the first Masterworks concerts of the orchestra’s 31st season. The concerts feature the last notable works of revered composers Edward Elgar, Joseph Haydn and Jean Sibelius.

Bailey will perform Elgar’s Cello Concerto in E minor, a work on which he and Schulze have previously collaborated.

Schulze is excited about the program. “Zuill is one of those artists who puts it all out there,” she wrote in an email. “He’s totally involved in the performance in a way that draws everyone into the sound world he creates.”

Bailey, 40, creates his sound world on a cello made in 1693 — when Johann Sebastian Bach was 8 years old.

“It’s a remarkable cello,” Bailey said. “If it’s not in my hands it’s in the case,” he added.

That careful approach will preclude an encounter like one he had as a 4-year-old. Bailey, an energetic little boy, “got loose” from his mother after a concert. Running furiously down a back hallway, he “smashed”  into a girl with a cello. She dropped it; It broke.

“I think that’s where it all began,” he said, adding, “It was kind of destiny.”

But there are other reasons Bailey plays the cello. His mother is a pianist who studied with Leon Fleisher at the Peabody Institute. His father has a doctorate in both music and education. His sister is a violinist.

“It was a very, very interesting time musically, and it was a huge time for the Suzuki revolution,” he said. Bailey thinks that method of teaching music helped him to get connected to the cello.

Bailey and his family lived in Northern Virginia. He said he was inspired by celebrated cellist Mstislav Rostropovich, who from 1977 to 1994 was music director and conductor of the National Symphony Orchestra in Washington, D.C.

Bailey was 12 or 13 when he realized he wanted to be a professional musician. “I think the real moment happened during my debut,” he said. He had just played a Saint-Saëns concerto. “I never felt that feeling before, that feeling of complete wonderment, contentment. Kind of being out of myself — like flying. Kind of complete fulfillment.”

At that same concert, a man gave him some advice: “If you can find what you love to do in this life, and find a way to make a career of it, you’ll never work a day in your life.”

Bailey thought for about five seconds and knew that the cello and music answered the question.

He decided, “literally at that moment,” to put his life in gear to spend it trying to spread the joy of music — the joy he’d had at that concert.

“In whatever way I could,” he said. “I didn’t know what that meant at the time, but clearly, the cello was going to be the beginning.”

Bailey began practicing and studying and going to concerts and being very alive as a musician. He acknowledged he was lucky that the concerts he went to were led by Rostropovich.

“Everything that I saw done on a normal, regular basis was done by a very legendary, historic, abnormal musician. … Rostropovich did things much larger than normal life in every way. … His presentation is my norm,” Bailey explained.

He’s grateful because things aren’t usually daunting for him.

“My norm is a very different gear (than it would have been) had it not been for him,” he added.

That “gear” is a high gear. 

Bailey received his bachelor’s and master’s degrees from the Peabody Conservatory and the Juilliard School. He tours 250 days a year playing 80 to 90 concerts. He is artistic director of three music festivals and series: El Paso (Texas) Pro Musica, Sitka (Alaska) Summer Music Festival and Series and the Northwest Bach Festival in Spokane, Wash.

Bailey’s on a mission to make classical music accessible — part of the “daily fabric” of people’s lives. The way to do it is to take the music to the people through performance, education and outreach, he said.

Bailey has been teaching at the University of Texas at El Paso since 2004.

“It’s a very special thing and a heavy responsibility to be a teacher to inform students, to inspire them, to instill work ethic, and also, a reality-based view of the music,” he said.

His resume includes television and radio performances and a long list of recordings. Bailey said his just-released recording of the Dvorak concerto (the other work he’s collaborated on with Schulze) has met with great success. It will be among the albums available at this weekend’s performances.

Bailey recently recorded the Elgar, but it isn’t available yet. He called the Dvorak and Elgar concertos the “two pillars” of the repertoire.

“I feel extremely lucky to have been able to document, personally, these two hallmarks of the cello literature,” he said.

The Elgar work, which premiered in October 1919, was the composer’s last great musical effort, according to program notes, online at A remarkable work in four movements, it sums up Elgar’s life, Bailey said. It bookends itself — beginning and ending in the same way — like life does, he added.

Bailey considers the cello one of the most communicative instruments in the orchestra, because it’s the one that’s most like the human voice.

“The cello is the perfect vehicle to kind of give someone’s autobiography,” he said.

Schulze is pleased Zuill Bailey and his cello will be on The Maryland Theatre stage Saturday and Sunday to tell Edward Elgar’s story.

“It’s an experience I’ve wanted to share with our Maryland Symphony audience ever since I got a chance to work with him the first time,” Schulze wrote. “He’s a special artist who performs at the highest level. Our listeners are in for a real treat!”

If you go ...       

WHAT: Masterworks 1, “Famous Last Words”

WHEN: 8 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 13, and 3 p.m. Sunday, Oct. 14

WHERE: The Maryland Theatre, 21 S. Potomac St., downtown Hagerstown

COST: Adult tickets cost $15 to $49 and may be purchased online at, by phone, 301-797-4000, or at the MSO office at 30 W. Washington St., 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. today and Friday and noon to 4 p.m. Saturday.

Students in kindergarten through 12th grade are admitted free to all Masterworks concerts. 

Rush tickets, if available, for college students (no reservations accepted) may be picked up at The Maryland Theatre box office before each performance for $5.

MORE: Program notes and audio clips of the musical selections are available at

Music Director Elizabeth Schulze and guest artists will talk about the program and composers one hour before Saturday and Sunday’s performances during Prelude. The half-hour presentation is free for ticket holders.

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