Daniel Lee can't stop playing music.
He started with the piano at 5, soon added the violin, and then switched to the cello at 6. A prodigy, he made his orchestral debut at 10.
At 11, he became the youngest protégé of famed Russian cellist Mstislav Rostroprovich. His parents gave up their home and successful business in Seattle to move to the Philadelphia area so he could attend the Curtis Institute of Music.
At 14, he signed a recording contract with Decca. At 21, he received an Avery Fisher Career Grant, just one of many awards and competitions he's won. At 25, he became principal cello of the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra.
Now 29, Lee is an accomplished recitalist and a regular soloist with orchestras from the Northeast to the Far East. Next weekend, he'll play Edward Elgar's gorgeous Cello Concerto in E minor, op. 85, with his home orchestra.
Asked to explain the appeal of the cello to a first-grader, Lee says, "I think the appeal was for my mom. I was a hyperactive kid, slightly ADHD-ish, and my mother thought this was a way of helping me out. I would have rather been running around with the other kids."
That was then. "Nowadays, I can't seem to stop practicing."
The appeal is in the cello's voice, "very close to the human voice, very flexible," Lee says. "We can play all sorts of ranges, from bass to soprano. We can sing. We can play many different roles - accompaniment, bass, the leading part. It's very interesting being a cellist, because of its many different roles."
Lee says he tries to emulate singers in his playing, particularly tenors; the tenor range is "the forte register of the cello," he says.
"Sometimes I'll actually write words to every count, like a singer. It becomes more organic that way. It can be very silly, too, but it really helps."
In all his preparations, he carefully considers the phrasing, the vibrato and the piece's character.
"This is my favorite part of making music," Lee says.
He practices an hour before every orchestra rehearsal; he practices afterward; and he practices on his days off.
It pays off for his colleagues and listeners, music director David Robertson says. Robertson, who hired Lee, says the cellist can apparently do just about anything musical.
"It's almost frightening sometimes," Robertson says, "because I'll ask him, 'Can you do this?' and he'll say, 'Oh, yeah, I can try that' - and then he does something that Yo-Yo Ma would be proud of. The frustrating thing is that he doesn't seem to find that difficult."
What Lee has found difficult is getting the right instrument for optimum music-making. He had a fine one on loan from a private foundation but had to return it when he got the job in St. Louis.
"I built my career on it," he says. "It was a very beautiful cello, like an extension of me."
Since then, he's tried different instruments.
"They have different personalities," Lee says. "Some are more soprano, some are more bass, some are more grumpy."
It's hard to find a cello that has both power and a beautiful sound.
For the Elgar, Lee will be playing a borrowed instrument that has it all: a Domenico Montagnana, made in Venice in the early 18th century. Yo-Yo Ma plays one; so does Lynn Harrell.
"It's my dream," he says of the Montagnana.
The good news: It's for sale. The bad news: The asking price is $3 million.
"It's very important to have the right instrument," Lee says. "It helps you grow as an artist. You get inspiration from it. When you practice, it's not a chore; it's not work. It lets you make music, and you don't have to think about it."
He's looking forward to playing the Elgar, which he compares to "a well-written novel; every chord is like a beautiful poem," and to playing it with the SLSO.
"It's funny," Lee says. "I perform a lot (in other cities), but this is more personal. It's like I'm representing my team. It's a stronger connection."
Conductor Christopher Seaman, cellist Daniel Lee and the
St. Louis Symphony Orchestra in music of Tippett, Elgar and Tchaikovsky
Where: Powell Hall, 718 North Grand Boulevard
When: 8 p.m. Friday and Feb. 7; 3 p.m. Feb. 8
How much: $15.50 to $105
More info: 314-534-1700 or www.slso.org
Occupation: Principal cello, St. Louis Symphony Orchestra.
Birthplace: Born in Seattle on Jan. 11, 1980.
Family: His mother, Kyung-Sook Lee, and father, Sung-Young Lee, are South Korean immigrants. He is an only child.
Best-known teacher: Mstislav Rostroprovich.
Marital status: Single.
Home: Lives in the Continental Building, an easy walk from Powell Hall.
Car: Drives a BMW 335xi coupe.
On his iPod: "A whole bunch of symphonic music, a whole bunch of Elgar, some Lenny Kravitz, Edgar Meyer, Bill Evans, a lot of electronic music, Radiohead, Red Hot Chili Peppers, Snoop Dogg." No Rostropovich? "I've got lots of his CDs, but he's not on my iPod."