“Yo, Yo-Yo Ma, My Man!”

There were three truly great cellists in the 20th century: Pablo Casals, Mstislav Rostropovich, and Yo-Yo Ma. Only one is left.

Yo-Yo Ma is my age. He was born seventeen days ahead of me.

Born in France, 馬友友 (in Pinyin: Mǎ Yǒuyǒu) had a musical upbringing. His mother was a singer and his father was a conductor and composer. His family moved to New York when he was seven years old.

Ma began studying violin, and later viola, before taking up the cello in 1960 at age four. The child prodigy began performing before audiences at age five. When he was seven, he appeared on American television in a concert conducted by Leonard Bernstein (unfortunately, the ower of this and the next three videos don’t allow embedding, so you’ll have to double click them to watch them on YouTube):

By fifteen, Ma had graduated from high school and appeared as a soloist with the Harvard Radcliffe Orchestra. He studied at Juilliard and attended Columbia before enrolling at Harvard. He questioned whether he should continue his studies — until he heard Pablo Casals perform. That was all the inspiration he needed.

Ma has been referred to as “omnivorous” by critics. Besides the standard classical repertoire, he’s recorded Baroque pieces using period instruments; American bluegrass music; traditional Chinese melodies (including the soundtrack to the film Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon); as noted yesterday, the tangos of Argentinian composer Ástor Piazzolla; the music of modern minimalist Philip Glass in such works as Naqoyqatsi; and an eclectic and unusual collaboration with Bobby McFerrin, where Ma admits to being terrified of the improvisation McFerrin pushes him toward:

Here he is in an appearance on Sesame Street:

Ma was the first performer on September 11, 2002, at the site of the World Trade Center, while the first of the names of the dead were read in remembrance on the first anniversary of the attack on the WTC. He played the Sarabande movement from Bach’s Suite in C minor (#5). Here he plays the same piece in performance at the Tôdai-ji Temple in Nara, Japan:

A 2002 article in Time Magazine wrote about Ma’s Silk Road Project:

[It’s] an organization he founded to explore the musical currents and cultural interdependence of countries along the ancient Central Asian trade routes. The group commissions works by composers representing 10 countries (including China, Turkey and Uzbekistan) and oversees performances of this new repertoire by a comparably international ensemble of traditional and classical musicians. This month the orchestra plans to make its first concert tour of Central Asia.

The vision for the Silk Road Project grows out of the time-honored notion of music as a universal language. If a Chinese musician understands that his erhu (Chinese fiddle) is a descendant of the Arab oud, Ma believes, maybe he’ll be able to more readily embrace his connection to another culture. In an increasingly globalized world, we have information about one another, Ma says, “but how can we actually feel that, yeah I know you, I feel like we’ve met before?” Playing the music of other cultures is as enriching as travel, says Ma: “Every time I go away from something that I grew up with, I come back practicing more because my ears are cleaner. After Brazilian rhythms, I suddenly go back to Haydn and think, I can get a groove there and I’ve never thought about it. I’ve rushed through this part for the 30 years I’ve played this piece.”

Here’s Yo-Yo Ma performing with Cyro Baptista in a live version of “Afro,” from the album Obrigado Brazil:

Now for thirty-six seconds of unbridled joy: Ma and McFerrin’s duet of “Flight of the Bumblebeeby Rimsky-Korsakov.

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~ by Craig R. Smith on 24 September 2007.

8 Responses to ““Yo, Yo-Yo Ma, My Man!””

  1. Well, that was fun. Sure wish I had time to watch ALL of it.

  2. A very pleasant way to spend the first Monday morning of autumn.

  3. Indigo: If you haven’t already, take a brief moment to watch the last one. It will brighten your day.

  4. I can say only one thing. It is that same thing I would have said simply at the mention of his name. He performs the highest magic. Any space he plays in is transformed. Through the radio, CD, television, he transforms space.

    In my house everything stops when Ma Plays.

  5. Sewa: I did watch the last one this morning—the only one I saw through til the end!

  6. That is all fabulous and as usual I have missed out on the classical excellence: the instrument Cyro Baptista is playing is phenomenal. Just one query, and of course I am no judge, but what about Jacqueline du Pré?. I may be biased because every time I hear Elgar’s cello concerto I go of to a dreamleand of waving wheat, fenlands, church towers and cornflowers.

  7. Mrs. Slocombe, you are absolutely right. Du Pré is definitely acknowledged as one of the greatest exponents of the instrument. She is particularly associated with the Elgar — her interpretation of it has been described as “definitive” and “legendary.” A friend of mine knew her back in the 1970s. I am shocked that I left her out of the Great Cellists pantheon, and I hang my head in shame.

  8. Sigh, another over-achiever…

    I wish I had a better computer, I would love to listen to all the music but it takes so long to load anything from Youtube. I’ll try the last one, as you suggested to Indigo.

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