This month Yo-Yo Ma turned 65. He has been inspiring people since he was a child and continues his work with the energy level of a man decades younger, but with the great wisdom of the ambassador he has become.
Perfection is Not Enough
For many of us, attaining his mastery of cello technique and his complete command of the repertoire would be enough for one lifetime. Not for Ma. Arguably the most famous classical musician in the world – Ma does much more than perform.
Ma is a man who makes connections – connections between genres, connections between cultures, connections between past and future, and ultimately, connections between people. For Ma, it is a question of identity.
In this, his birthday month, instead of relating the timeline of his biography, impressive though it is, here we highlight some of the connections he has made and continues to make.
Ma quotes the great Pau Casals, saying
“I think of myself as a human being first, a musician second, and a cellist third.”
In spending much of his life away from his family, he’s asked himself:
“Why do people do what they do? What’s the meaning of why we live? It’s not a theoretical thing for me, because if I . . . have to leave my family two-thirds of the time that we’ve had children growing up . . . you better have a good reason why you’re doing that. So you get to that existential level. You have to have the reasons why it’s important.”
Ma’s humanity – and respect and concern for others – shine through in everything he does. He lives his life not as a superstar, but as an ambassador for peace.
A Unique Career Path
Ma could have gone straight from high school to a full-time schedule of performances, but instead, he chose to study anthropology at Harvard while continuing his studies at Julliard. He said:
“I wanted to try to tie together the various threads of my life.”
What is truly remarkable is that although he follows the spirit of Casals in putting his humanity first, he has created his own career path, using his expertise as a cellist as a means of exploring the world and bringing people together.
Making Musical Connections
Ma has gone far beyond the usual sphere of the classically trained cellist. His curiosity has led him to work with outstanding musicians from different genres. It is a process in which he both learns and teaches, although in all of his interviews he humbly emphasizes only his own learning.
Far from remaining an aloof soloist, Ma immerses himself in new kinds of music. As a result, he has created truly new work. Some of his albums have so successfully blended genres that they defy categorization.
Here we present three examples from his many projects.
The Soloist as Collaborator
One of his collaborations was with vocalist Bobby McFerrin. Here Ma and McFerrin appear on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson on 15 January 1992.
Later in the 1990s, along with pianist Kathryn Stott, Ma turned to the “special qualities of freedom, passion, and ecstasy . . . [the] dance, poetry, song and gestures, ethos and . . . philosophy of life” that embody the Argentinian tango in his album, Soul of the Tango. They were even able to create a track, “Tango Remembrances,” with the legendary Argentine tango composer and bandoneon player, Astor Piazzolla himself, through the wonders of recording technology – even though Piazzolla had passed away in 1992.
“I had to learn a whole different style of playing, in terms of intonation and even more in terms of rhythm . . . What’s of highest value to them is absolute precision, a grove-like rhythm that’s very hard for a classical musician to acquire; it demanded a real cultural switch.”
Here is Mark O’Connor’s “Appalachia Waltz” from the album of that name (2011).
Connecting Music and Other Art Forms
In addition to looking outside the standard cello repertoire, Ma has turned almost inward, to re-examine some of the first music he learned on the cello – the Bach Suites for unaccompanied cello.
What more could Ma, who has known these suites for decades, learn about this repertoire? He learned to see the suites through the eyes of artists in other disciplines through his Inspired by Bach project.
He worked with different types of artists on each suite – garden designers, an architect, a dance choreographer, a filmmaker, a Kabuki actor, and ice dancers. With each suite and each new collaboration, he was able to view these familiar works from a new perspective.
This project resulted in a series of DVDs and a new album of the suites.
There is something to be learned from each suite’s project, but perhaps the most cohesive was the 6th suite collaboration with the famous ice dancers, Jayne Torvill and Christopher Dean. Here is the Allemande:
Cultural Connections: The Silk Road Project
Although it was in 1998, that Ma began his Silk Road Project, now known as “Silkroad,” he traces its origins back to his days at Harvard (where he studied anthropology) and his desire to understand “music, people, and culture from the inside.” To explore the history of the Silk Road, and the exchange of ideas and culture that accompanied the trade goods, Ma
brought together musicians from the lands of the Silk Road to co-create a new artistic idiom, a musical language founded in difference, a metaphor for the benefits of a more connected world.
Just over two decades after its foundation,
[t]oday, Silkroad creates music that engages difference, sparking radical cultural collaboration and passion-driven learning for a more hopeful and inclusive world.
Here is part of a Silk Road Ensemble concert performance in Beijing. This is “Moon over Guan Mountain” by Zhao Jiping, played by Wu Man, Tong Wu, Sandeep Das, and Yo-Yo Ma:
Building Bridges, Not Walls: The Bach Project
In the summer of 2018, Ma embarked on his two-year Bach Project, performing the cello suites in 36 places around the world to bring people together through
Bach’s ability to speak to our shared humanity at a time when our civic conversation is so often focused on division.
Ma explains on his site that this project encompasses more than music – more than all of the arts; it is about
everything that helps us to understand our environment, each other, and ourselves, from music and literature to science and food. The Bach Project explores and celebrates all the ways that culture makes us stronger as individuals, as communities, as a society, and as a planet.
Here is footage from his program at the border of the USA and Mexico:
Connecting the Past and the Future
Ma reaches into the past and the future. One could argue that in some ways he stands on the shoulders of the greatest musicians who preceded him, in particular, Casals and his teacher Leonard Rose. In that way, he is connected to the past and traditions of Western music and the cello.
However, he has more actively looked to the past through his exploration of the baroque cello. Ma had the Davidoff Stradivarius (1712) he plays “baroqued.”
His main goal was to remove the pressure of a modern set-up from the instrument by putting on gut strings, a new bridge, and tailpiece. In addition, he plays it with a baroque bow.
Ma chose not to make the more drastic (and riskier) changes of putting on a new, old-style neck and fingerboard or replacing the modern bass bar with a more “authentic” one (which would have required removing the instrument’s belly), but he significantly altered the sound and feel of the instrument.
Although he does not use the Davidoff in his current performances of the Bach suites, he has used it to perform other Bach and other baroque music. Here is the Bach Cantata, BWV 167: Sei Lob und Preis mit Ehren:
For those who don’t get to meet him in person, they can still experience the magic of seeing him on TV. Early in his career, he visited Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood and Sesame Street.
How many of you – or your children – were influenced by meeting Ma or seeing him on TV with Mister Rogers or Elmo – or Big Bird and the Sesame Street Chamber Music Society? Here he performs a Beethoven (Murray Beethoven) quartet with two Honkers and a Dinger on Sesame Street:
Yo-Yo Ma Continues to Bring People Together
Ma brings us comfort – and hope. In March of this year, Ma was one of the first musicians to reach out to the world in crisis through his #SongsofComfort.
In May he gave a concert of all six Bach Suites online as a memorial for those we have lost in the pandemic and as a tribute to the resilience of our communities.
At a time when the world is being torn apart by politics, a pandemic, and a climate crisis, Ma brings people together. He said:
“Culture – the way we express ourselves and understand each other – can bind us together as one world.”
Thank You, Mr. Ma!
Through his empathy for his fellow human beings, his kindness, his generous spirit, and his unique vision – as well as his musicianship and cellistic abilities – Ma makes the world a better place.
This month began with his birthday and ended with his online global performances celebrating the 75th anniversary of the founding of the United Nations.
We wish Mr. Ma a very happy birthday month and thank him for his decades of inspiration. We look forward to his next projects.
What are your favorite Yo-Yo Ma experiences? How has he inspired you? Please tell us in the comments.