The rise and rise of Yo-Yo Ma

The world's greatest cellist connects musical traditions from around the world

He has won 16 Grammy Awards,performed for puppets and presidents,and has worked with Bobby McFerrin and the Kalahari Bushmen. He has recorded bluegrass and Baroque, twinned Bach and Kabuki dancing, and saluted Brazil. If it can be done, Yo Yo Ma has done it – and with nothing left to prove, all he can do is break new ground.This month, the living legend comes to Beijing to premiere composer Zhao Lin’s Double Concerto for Cello and Sheng. Another first.

Born in Paris, 1955, to musician parents who had fled an increasingly turbulent China, Ma first experimented with violin and viola, turning to cello at the ripe old age of four, and giving his first public performance at age five. Two years later he performed for presidents Kennedy and Eisenhower, and by eight he was on television with conductor Leonard Bernstein. Even by prodigy standards, his career had the trajectory of a rocket; by 19 he was a star.

By then, however, he was a freshman at Harvard, which ignited a lifelong passion for the humanities that he channelled into music, following legendary cellist (and one-time collaborator) Pablo Casals’ philosophy of being a human being first, a musician second, and a cellist third. ‘It was such a relief to read Casals’ statement, because to me, as a nine year old, it made perfect sense,’ says Ma. ‘As a 58 year old, these words resonate even more. Today, because of that idea, I believe the phrase “art for art’s sake” has transformed into “art is for life’s sake”.’

Ma uses his indefatigable energy to bring musical worlds together. Playing on the film soundtrack for Memoirs of a Geisha (2005), or appearing on Sesame Street were natural extensions of his career and ebullient personality; more controversial – at least among the classical set – were multimedia versions of Bach’s Cello Suites made in collaboration with six different artists from six different fields, such as choreographer Mark Morris, a Kabuki actor and ice dancers Torvill and Dean. In 1993 he worked with the Kalahari Bushmen to search for common musical ground; he played his cello for them, they taught him their traditional instruments made of oil cans, sinew and twigs. After that he took on the tango, honouring the late, great Astor Piazzolla in collaboration with some legends in the genre. His Soul of the Tango earned him another Grammy. ‘Yo Yo Ma is a unique case of talent, personality and charisma,’ says cellist and collaborator Carlos Prieto. ‘His multifaceted activities have drawn unprecedented attention to the cello while enriching music, culture and understanding.’

But his most enduring experiment has been his Silk Road Project, born of his desire to link world neighbourhoods and increase global musical understanding, taking as his model the ethnic diversity of the Silk Road, an ancient, intercontinental trading route. ‘Classical music is one of the great human inventions, based on a compromise in tuning to achieve equal temperament in pitch,’ he says. ‘This allows for the vertical building of harmonies, in much the same way that the development of steel, new materials and techniques made it possible for architecture to build up vertically.

This month, Ma premiers Silk Road composer Zhao Lin’s Double Concerto for Cello and Sheng, a traditional Chinese wood wind instrument. ‘Zhao Lin is such lovely young man and musician,’ says Ma. ‘One evening [sheng musician] Wu Tong presented me with a beautiful melody, Swallow Song, a love song heard on both sides of the border between China and Kazakhstan. The next morning, Zhao had made an exquisite version for voice and cello of such sensitivity and taste. I thought maybe one day he might be willing to write a piece for Wu and me – the result is this Double Concerto.’

Ma is no stranger to commissions; in fact only the late Mstislav Rostropovich has expanded the cello repertoire to a comparable amount.‘Working with living creators is fascinating,’ says Ma. ‘It allows [us] to follow the thinking process, to probe the depth of motivation, to explore the realm of ideas. The methodologies of creators are varied, yet there are common threads.‘

These can be incredibly helpful in decoding the music of creators that are no longer with us, a process that I somewhat teasingly call “forensic musicology”. The constant for understanding is always: who did it and why?’

Clearly, Ma has always had an intellectual bent; indeed, his father would school him in French and Chinese history and have him memorise two measures of Bach a day, so he was playing the incredibly challenging Cello Suites at age four. But for anyone that takes his biography as a how-to for their own children, Ma exhorts them to consider the bigger musical picture. ‘There is no way for someone to be just like anyone else!’ he says. ‘My children, who are 28 and 30, both love music and have studied various instruments. Music is in their lives – they have access to its magic and power to express and transform states of mind. These expressions are part of every individual’s path toward cultural literacy.’

As for his own world? Ma’s defining figures and moments include the family’s move from Paris to New York in his teens, studying with the great Leonard Rose at Julliard’s pre-college programme, absorbing a panoply of subjects at university and spending time with his ‘dear wife and children’. But clearly he has taken a higher path. ‘As I get older, I get more satisfaction from seeing the achievements of others, especially younger people,’ he says. ‘I increasingly think about how the healthiest society we can have is one where politics, economics, and culture intersect. Here each would understand the others’ roles, and the four values of collaboration, flexible thinking, imagination and innovation would be practised in every field. That would truly lead us all to a new enlightenment.’ Ma just might make that happen.

Yo Yo Ma and the China Philharmonic Orchestra play at the FCCH on Saturday, November 9. See event listings for details.
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