Yo-Yo Ma is a world-famous cellist whose performances draw sell-out crowds. Since his early childhood, Ma had an affinity for the cello that earned him prodigy status, and he matured into the talented interpreter of solo and ensemble works for cello. He has appeared with major orchestras throughout the world and recorded most of the solo cello repertoire. Ma’s popularity rests not only on his technical mastery of the cello and superb musicianship, but his ability to communicate to the audience his love of the music he performs.
Born into an upper-class Chinese family living in Paris, Yo-Yo was the youngest of two musically talented children. Ma’s affinity for music came as no surprise as his mother, Marina, was a mezzo-soprano and his father, Hiao-Tsiun, was a violinist, composer, and musicologist who specialized in the education of gifted children. The Ma children were schooled at home in the traditional Chinese fashion, with lessons in the Chinese language, literature, and calligraphy. Ma’s first musical training was on the violin, but because his sister Yeou-Cheng also played that instrument, Ma wanted to in his words “play something bigger.” Ma began to study the cello at age four with his father, who, when he could not find a small enough cello, gave his son a viola to which he had attached an end pin. Ma’s father taught using a method that involved practicing for only a half hour each day and memorizing several bars of a Bach suite for unaccompanied cello. In this way, the young cellist learned three such suites by the time he was five years old and performed one of them at his first public recital at the Institute of Art and Archeology at the University of Paris. Despite his astounding ability, Ma was not pressured by his parents to go on tour as a child prodigy.
When Ma was seven years old his family moved to New York City, where his father taught at a school for musically gifted children, including the children of the virtuoso violinist Isaac Stern. One day Stern heard the young Ma play and recommended that he study with Leonard Rose at the Julliard School of Music. Ma auditioned for Rose and as a student in the college prepatory division became the youngest pupil ever of the distinguished cellist. Ma credits Rose with much of his success for, as he told Stephen Wigler of the Baltimore Sun, Rose taught him “everything I know about the cello.” Remembering those lessons, Ma told Thor Eckert, Jr., a Christian Science Monitor reporter, “It was quite intense, and from the start Rose taught me that to play the cello you must have an absolute physical relationship with your instrument. When you play you must feel as though the instrument is a part of your body, the strings are your voice, and the cello is your lungs.” For his part, Rose described the student’s technical and interpretative ability: “He was very small and already quite extraordinary….
Born October 7, 1955, in Paris, France; son of Hiao-Tsiun (a musicologist, violinist, and composer) and Marina Ma; married Jill Horner (a professor of German), May 20, 1978; children: Nicholas (born 1983), Emily (born 1985). Education: Received high school diploma from Professional Children’s School, 1970; attended Julliard School, 1964-71; Harvard University, B.A. in Humanities, 1976.
Has performed as a soloist with numerous orchestras and chamber groups since age 15; also performs with his own chamber ensembles.
Awards: Awarded the Avery Fisher Prize, 1978; Grammy Award for recording of Elgar Cello Concerts, 1985.
Addresses: Manager—ICM Artists Ltd, 40 West57th St., New York, NY 10019.
When he was about seventeen, he gave a performance of Schubert’s Arpeggione, which is a holy terror for cellists, and it was so gorgeous I was moved to tears,” he told a writer for Time.
As a teenager, Ma attended New York City’s Professional Children’s School. He skipped two grades and graduated at age fifteen. That same year he made his New York debut at Carnegie Hall and was asked by the famous conductor/composer Leonard Bernstein to perform on national television for a fund-raising event for the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, D.C. Ma then entered Julliard’s college division for a year and the following summer attended the Meadowmount music camp, where, freed from the discipline of his home, he rebelled with irresponsible behavoir. At the end of the summer, his rebellion against the narrowly defined focus of conservatory courses continued in his decision to attend Columbia University instead. Yet after a semester, Ma was also dissatisfied with the academic life at Columbia, and in 1972 he transferred to Harvard University, from which he graduated with a Bachelor of Arts degree in humanities in 1976. While at Harvard, Ma took courses in music history, theory, and appreciation and he played in student ensembles. He also began his professional music career by performing on weekends at local venues.
Ma began his full-time performance career in 1976 and in 1978 it was launched when Ma won the prestigious Avery Fisher Prize. The purpose of this award is to give talented young instrumentalists opportunities to perform with major orchestras, and Ma benefitted directly through performances with the New York Philharmonic and other ensembles. After being forced into a one-year hiatus from performing because of surgery to correct an unnaturally curved spine, Ma resumed a busy schedule of appearances that range to 125 per year.
When Ma plays the cello, the tone he produces is not as powerful as those of other famous cellists, but it is silky and he is undoubtedly a master of technique and expressivity. Ma performs and has recorded works from many eras and styles, ranging from Bach concerti to the Britten Symphony for Cello. Since he likes to learn several new pieces each year, early in his career Ma nearly exhausted the somewhat limited repertoire of works for solo cello and began to commission new works from such composers as Leon Kirchner, one of his teachers at Harvard, and Oliver Knussen. Not only does Ma perform as a soloist, but since he is committed to chamber music, he appears and records with his own piano trio, string quartet, and string trio.
Bach: Complete Suites for Cello (No. 1 - 6), CBS.
Barber: Concerto for Cello, CBS, 1988.
Beethoven: Complete Sonatas (No. 1 - 5); Twelve Variations in F Major for Cello and Piano based on “Ein Madchen oder Weibchen” from Mozart’s The Enchanted Flute; Twelve Variations in G Major for Cello and Piano based on “See the Conqu’ring Hero Comes” from Handel’s Judas Macchabee; Seven Variations in E Flat for Cello and Piano based on “Bei Mannern, welche liebe fühlen” from Mozart’s The Enchanted Flute, CBS.
Beethoven: Concerto for Piano, Violin, Cello, and Orchestra in C Major, op. 56, DG.
Boccherini: Concerto for Cello and Orchestra No. 9 in B Flat, CBS.
Boiling: Suite for Cello and Jazz Piano, CBS.
Brahms: Sonatas for Piano and Cello, No. 1 and 2, RCA, 1985.
Brahms: String Quartet and Piano No. 3 in C Minor, op. 60, CBS.
Brahms: Double Concerto for Violin, Cello, and Orchestra in A Major, op. 102, CBS.
Britten: Cello Symphony, CBS, 1988.
Dvorak: Concerto for Cello and Orchestra in A Minor, op. 104; Rondo for Cello and Orchestra in G minor, op. 94; The Bohemian Forest, op. 68 (extract); Silence, transcribed for cello and orchestra; CBS.
Dvorak: Trios No. 3 and 4 for Piano, Violin, and Cello, CBS.
Elgar: Concerto for Cello and Orchestra in E Minor, op. 85; Walton: Concerto for Cello and Orchestra, CBS, 1985.
Haydn: Concerti for Cello and Orchestra, No. 1 and 2, op. 101, CBS.
Japanese Melodies, CBS.
Kabalevski: Concerto for Cello and Orchestra in G Minor, op. 49, CBS.
Kreisler: Transcriptions for Cello and Piano: Songs that the Sea Taught Me, CBS.
Lalo: Concerto for Cello and Orchestra in D Minor, CBS, 1984.
Mozart: Sonata in B Flat Major for Cello and Bassoon, Malboro Recording Society.
Mozart: Adagio and Fugue in C Minor, CBS.
Mozart: Divertissement for Violin, Viola, and Cello in E Flat Major, CBS.
Paganini: Transcriptions for Cello and Piano, No. 9, 13, 14, 17, 24, op. 1; Transcriptions for Cello and Piano, CBS.
Saint-Sans: Concerto for Cello and Orchestra No. 1 in A Minor,op. 33, CBS.
Schoenberg: Concerto for Cello and Orchestra in D Major, based on a concerto for harpischord by Matthias Georg Monn, CBS.
Schubert: String Quartet in G Major, op. 151, CBS.
Schubert: Quintet for Two Violins, Viola, and Two Cellos in C Major, op. 163, CBS.
Shostakovitch: Concerto for Cello and Orchestra in E Flat Major, op. 107, CBS.
Strauss: Don Quichotte, CBS.
Baltimore Sun, May 25, 1986; March 21, 1988.
Christian Science Monitor, May 26, 1978.
Diapason-Harmonie, June 1988.
Kansas City Star, September 15, 1985.
New York Daily News, March 24, 1987.
Time, January 19, 1981.
Tuscon Citizen, March 16, 1988.
—Jeanne M. Lesinski
Ma, Yo Yo
Yo Yo Ma
Ten-time Grammy Award winning cellist Yo Yo Ma possessed astounding technical brilliance and an awe-inspiring artistic sensibility. He virtually defined the standard for future cellists, and during his prolific career recorded more than 45 albums, between 1983 and 1998. Ma never hesitated to explore fresh musical terrain and the music of other cultures, and often explored the musical forms outside of the Western classical tradition. Ma immersed himself in projects as diverse as native Chinese music and it’s distinctive instruments, the music of the Kalahari bush people in Africa, and tango music. Ma became one of the most sought-after cellists of his time, appearing with eminent conductors and orchestras throughout the world. He also gained a deserved reputation as an ambassador for classical music and its vital role in society.
Ma was born in Paris in 1955 to Chinese parents, and he began his cello studies with his father at the age of four. Ma gave his first public recital at the age of five. He eventually studied with Janos Scholz and then, at the age of seven, Ma became a pupil of Leonard Rose at the Juilliard School of Music in 1962. By the time Ma was nineteen, he was compared with masters such as Rostropovich and Casals. He graduated from Harvard University in 1977, and in 1978, at the age of 23, Ma received the prestigious Avery Fisher Prize. Ma gained international recognition as soloist and chamber musician. He performed as a soloist with symphony orchestras around the world, including those of Boston, San Francisco, Philadelphia, Toronto, and Minnesota, as well as the New York, Israel, and Los Angeles Philharmonics.
Ma earned his first Grammy award in 1984 for Best Classical Performance—Instrumental for Bach: The Unaccompanied Cello Suites. A year later he garnered two more Grammy Awards, one for Elgar: Cello Concerto, Op. 85, and one for Best Chamber Music Performance for Brahms: Cello and Piano Sonatas in E Minor, with Emanuel Ax. Ma’s long-standing partnership with pianist Ax resulted in the lion’s share of his recordings as well as numerous recitals. Their partnership became one of the music world’s most successful and prolific collaborations. They recorded the complete cello sonatas of Beethoven and Brahms in addition to works by Britten, Chopin, Prokofiev, Rachmaninov, Strauss, and others. In 1986 Ma won two more Grammys, along with Ax and producer James Mallinson, in the Best Classical Album and Best Chamber Music Performance categories for Beethoven: Cello and Piano Son. No. 4. Two years later in 1988 Ma won a Best Classical Instrumental Performance Grammy for Brahms: Double Concerto in A Minor, a year later he won another in the same category for Barber: Cello Concerto, Op. 22. and a Grammy for Best Chamber Music Performance for Shostakovich: Trio No. 2 for Violin, Cello & Piano with Ax and violinist Isaac Stern.
In 1991 the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) hyperinstrument team designed a special hypercello for Ma, and Tod Machover composed a special piece titled “Begin Again Again” for Ma to be performed on this new instrument. The hypercello permitted Ma to control an extensive array of sounds through performance nuance. Ma also received an honorary doctorate from Harvard in 1991. A Grammy Award for Best Classical Instrumental Performance was awarded to Ma for his work on Tchaikovsky: Variations on a Rococo Theme in 1991, in addition to a Grammy for Best Chamber Music Performance for Brahms: Piano Quartets the same year. Ma continued to win Grammy awards in 1992, 1993, 1994, 1995, and 1997. During the 1995-1996 season, Ma and Ax celebrated the 20th anniversary of their partnership with a recital tour culminating at Carnegie Hall, as well as aspecial concert at Lincoln Center’s Alice Tully Hall for an episode of PBS’s Live from Lincoln Center.
Ma balanced his solo performances with orchestras around the world with his recital and chamber music activities. He drew inspirations from a diverse and farreaching circle of collaborators, working with musicians such as Daniel Barenboim, Pamela Frank, Emanuel Ax,
Born in 1955, in Paris, to Chinese parents; began his cello studies with his father at age four; gave his first public recital at age five; studied with Janos Scholz and at age seven; became a pupil of Leonard Rose at the Juilliard School of Music in 1962; graduated from Harvard University in 1977; gained international recognition as soloist, and chamber musician; performed as a soloist with symphony orchestras around the world, including Boston, San Francisco, Philadelphia, Toronto, and Minnesota; won first Grammy award, 1984; won nine more Grammy awards between 1984 and 1997; released more than 45 albums between 1984 and 1998.
Awards: Received Avery Fisher Prize in 1978; Grammy Awards: Best Classical Performance—Instrumental, 1984-85, 1989, 1992; Best Chamber Music Performance, 1986, 1988, 1991-94, 1997; Best Classical Album, 1988, 1997; Best Classical Performance, 1991; Best Instrumental Soloists, 1995.
Stephane Grappelli, Jeffrey Kahane, Young Uck Kim, Jaime Laredo, Bobby McFerrin, Edgar Meyer, Mark O’Connor, Peter Serkin, Isaac Stern, Richard Stoltzman, and Kathryn Stott. Each collaboration was generated by interaction between the musicians and often resulted in pieces that extended far beyond the boundaries of classical music or of any particular music classification. Ma joined Ax, Stern, and Laredo for performances and recordings of the piano quartet repertoire of Beethoven, Brahms, Dvorak, Faurve, Mozart, and Schumman.
Mareleased Hush with vocalist Bobby McFerrin in 1992, followed by the soundtrack to the Gary Oldman film, Immortal Beloved, both of which were certified gold by the Recording Industry Association of America. In 1995 Ma presented the first in a series of films of Bach’s Six Cello Suites, exploring the relationship between Bach’s music and other artistic disciplines. The premier film, presented at the Edinburgh Festival in Scotland, featured the original choreography of Mark Morris setto the Third Cello Suite. Subsequent multimedia presentations/films by Ma, released throughout the late 1990s, incorporate the work of Kabuki artist Tamasaburo Bando, Italian architect Piranesi, Boston-based garden designer Julie Moir Messervy, Olympic ice-dancing champions Jane Torvill and Christopher Dean, and Canadian film director Atom Egoyan. In 1996 Ma released Peter Lieberson’s chamber work King Gesar, a compilation of concertos by Kirchner, Rouse, and Danielpour with David Zinman and the Philadelphia Orchestra. In 1996 Ma also released Appalachia Waltz, an album of original music recorded in Nashville, Tennessee with fiddle player Mark O’Connor and bassist Edgar Meyer. In 1997 Ma recorded new material by Andre Previn, set to words by author Toni Morrison, featuring soprano Sylvia McNair and Previn as pianist.
American contemporary composers have been featured prominently in Ma’s repertoire. Ma premiered works by William Bolcom, John Corigliano, John Harbison, Ezra Laderman, Peter Lieberson, Christopher Rouse, Bright Sheng, and John Williams, among others. Ma devoted time to working with young musicians in programs at Interlochen, Michigan, and other music camps. He often included educational outreach programs in his touring schedule, through master classes and informal interaction with student audiences.
In 1997 Ma recorded the soundtrack of Liberty!, a PBS documentary series about the American Revolution. Ma performed the music of the late Argentinean composer Astor Piazzolla on the release Soul of the Tangoin, and performed for the music video for director Sally Potter’s feature film, The Tango Lesson, in which Ma plays Piazzolla’s “Libertango”. On Soul of the Tango, Ma played with Argentinean tangueros, which included a rock “duet” with Piazzolla—achieved by recording over one of the master bandoneonist’s—a sort of accordion—final recordings. Ma steeped himself in Piazzolla’s music and background by studying a tape of Rostropovich rehearsing “Le Grand Tango” for Piazzolla, and by traveling to Buenos Aires to tour tango clubs. Ma told Billboard’s Bradley Bambarger, “The whole experience of researching and recording [Soul of the Tango] was a thrill. Like a lot of people, I’m so irresistibly drawn to Piazzolla’s music. It’s very sophisticated, yet it’s also very primal. And you can say that about Beethoven, Stravinsky—all the good stuff feeds the mind, the body, and the soul.”
Bach: The Unaccompanied Cello Suites, Sony, 1984.
Elgar: Cello Concerto, Op. 85, Sony, 1985.
Brahms: Cello & Piano Sonatas in E Minor and F Major, Sony, 1985.
Beethoven: Complete Sonatas for Piano and Cello, Sony, 1987.
Boccherini: Cello Concerto, Sony, 1987.
Boiling: Suite for Cello and Jazz Trio, Sony, 1987.
Japanese Melodies, Sony, 1987.
Schumann: Cello Concerto, Sony, 1988.
Dvorak: Great Cello Concertos, Sony, 1989.
Portrait of Yo Yo Ma, Sony, 1989.
Shostakovich: Trio No. 2 for Violin, Cello & Piano, Sony, 1989.
Saint-Saens: Concertos, Sony, 1991.
Tchaikovsky: Variations on a Rococo Theme, Sony, 1991.
Faure: Piano Quartets Nos. 1 & 2, Sony, 1993.
Chopin: Polonaise Brillante, Sony, 1994.
Appalachia Waltz, Sony, 1996. Goldenthal: Fire Water Paper—A Vietnam Oratorio, Sony, 1996.
Lieberson: King Gesar, Sony, 1996.
From Ordinary Things (with Andre Previn), Sony, 1997.
Liberty, Sony, 1997.
Seven Years in Tibet, Soundtrack, Sony, 1997.
Soul of the Tango: The Music of Astor Piazzolla, Sony, 1997.
Music for Strings & Piano Left, Sony, 1998.
Tavener: The Protecting Veil, Wake Up...and Die, Sony, 1998.
Billboard, December 6, 1997.
MIT website: http://www.brainop.media.mit.edu, (November 3, 1998).
Music Boulevard website: htt://www.musicblvd.com, (October 30, 1998).
Sony Music website: http://www.sonyclassical.com, (November 5, 1998).
Videoflicks website: http://www.videoflicks.com, (October 28, 1998).
—B. Kimberly Taylor
Yo-Yo Ma (born 1955) is respected as one of the greatest cellists of the twentieth century. He brought a new vitality to the art of cello playing through his inspired adaptations of non-traditional music styles for the classical instrument.
Spirited and fun-loving Yo-Yo Ma brought new dimensions to the classic art of cello playing. Immediately upon his arrival on the music scene in the late 1960s and early 1970s he ranked among the finest cellists of the twentieth century. As his talent matured he was respected for his extraordinary interpretive skill. Over time Ma earned admiration for his intriguing adaptations of non-traditional musical styles for the cello. In addition to symphonic orchestral performances and unaccompanied Bach, Ma augmented the classic cello repertoire when he incorporated jazz, bluegrass, tango, and traditional African musical styles into his performances. Critics applauded his creative adaptations that offered a fresh perspective and imparted a new vitality to a classic instrument.
Yo-Yo Ma was born in Paris, France on October 7, 1955. His father, Hiao-Tsiun Ma, was a violinist and musicologist from China's Shanghai region. He specialized in composition and was widely respected for his talent as a music teacher. Ma's mother was a mezzo-soprano from Hong Kong. Ma's sister, older by four years, played the violin before obtaining a medical degree and becoming a pediatrician.
Ma spent his early childhood in France. He and an older sister began their musical studies on the violin. Ma's father taught the boy to play as a toddler. By the age of four Ma requested a much larger instrument and, left to his own devices, would have selected a double bass. His parents agreed to provide him with a cello on the condition that he would make no further requests for other instruments. As it was, they had difficulty locating a small cello, and Ma's earliest lessons were taken on a viola rigged with an endpin to simulate a cello. He began cello lessons with his father and progressed rapidly. Hiao-Tsiun Ma used Bach suites as music lessons, but simplified the learning process for his son by teaching only two measures at a time. Thus Ma learned to play very difficult music with ease, and his precocious talent surfaced quickly. After one year of training, he knew three of the Bach suites from memory.
A Prodigy and Student
When he was seven years old, the family moved to New York City, where Ma had the good fortune to be heard by such great musicians as Pablo Casals and Isaac Stern. In 1963, Leonard Bernstein invited Ma and his sister to perform with other youngsters at the "American Pageant of the Arts" in Washington D.C., a fund-raising event for the future Kennedy Center. Stern referred the family to cellist Leonard Rose of the prestigious Juilliard School in New York City as an instructor for Ma. When he completed high school at the age of 15, Ma enrolled at the Juilliard School. The following summer he attended the prestigious Meadowmount music camp. He was far from disciplined in his musical studies and admitted to leaving his cello in the rain on occasion. When he returned to New York, Ma left Juilliard and enrolled at Columbia University, determined to learn about life outside the practice rooms and music halls. Ma's adolescent rebelliousness manifested itself further when, unbeknownst to his parents, he dropped his classes at Columbia without completing a single semester. He then transferred to Harvard, where his sister was also in attendance.
Ma continued to study cello under Leon Kirchner and Luise Vosgerchian while majoring in humanities. Patricia Zander also worked with Ma, both as an accompanist and musical coach. Ma performed professionally during his college years, and contributed graciously to academic programs as well. He formed a trio with two classmates, violinist Lynn Chang and pianist Richard Kogan. Among their performances they appeared at a benefit for Harvard's Phillips Brooks House student volunteer program. Ma at once both amazed and annoyed his teachers by his attitude. He was clearly a prodigy but avoided practice at all cost. He rejected instruction in technique yet, left to his own devices, produced sounds of remarkable quality. In 1976, he had the opportunity to study in a master class under the eminent cellist, Rostropovich. The master chided Ma incessantly and refused to patronize the young cellist for his talent. Rostropovich berated Ma to reach deeper into the music and to use the bow to "pull the soul" of the composition through the strings. Those in observance understood that the senior cellist would have ignored a less talented student.
Ma graduated from Harvard, then remained on campus as an artist in residence at the Leverett House from 1979 through 1981. There he pleased listeners with his talent and pleased himself with experimentation. In 1980, he performed Ivan Tcherepnin's Flores Musicales in an electronically amplified quartet. Also during those years, he played with the Harvard Chamber Orchestra with Leon Kirchner.
Ma is a highly respected member of the Boston Symphony Orchestra. He made his first recording at the age of 22 and went on to produce more than 50 albums. He has made guest appearances with the Philadelphia Symphony, Israeli Symphony, Los Angeles Philharmonic, and orchestras in Toronto and Minnesota. In celebration of his guest appearance with the San Francisco Symphony, that body commissioned Richard Danielpour to create a cello concerto for Ma. In 1987, Ma performed at the grand reopening of the renovated Carnegie Hall. In 1989, he gave a solo performance at a United Nations Day concert with Charles Dutoit conducting. In 1993 RCA Victor released Ma's rendition of "Variations on a Rococo Theme," recorded live at the Tchaikovsky: Gala in Leningrad, celebrating the 150th anniversary of Tchaikovsky's birth. Also heard on that album were Jessye Norman, Itzhak Perlman, and the Leningrad Philharmonic under the baton of Yuri Temirkanov. When Ma performed at the September opening of the New Jersey Symphony's 1999 season, Leslie Kandell of New York Times referred to the Elgar Concerto, his opening rendition, as "a fine vehicle for Mr. Ma's passionate manner and seamless bow changes." When Ma performed with Itzhak Perlman and James Levine critics labeled them a "dream trio."
Inspired by Bach
From early youth, Ma retained the affinity that he learned from his father for the works of Bach. According to Ma he was instructed by his father not only to memorize the pieces—measure by measure—but to play Bach at bedtime as a way to relax. Poignantly it was the dutiful son, Yo-Yo Ma, who later serenaded with the Bach 5th Suite, "Sarabande," at Hiao-Tsiun Ma's deathbed. In January 1991, Ma performed the entire collection of six Bach suites as a single concert at Carnegie Hall. The marathon lasted well over four hours and was timed around a dinner break and two intermissions. The pressure for Ma was extreme. Prior to the concert he fasted for several hours and summoned reserves of mental and physical stamina.
Ma released recordings of the six unaccompanied Bach suites for cello in 1997 and 1998, for the second time in his career. The album, called "Yo-Yo Ma Inspired by Bach," was also the basis of a six-part television series that aired on the Public Broadcasting System (PBS). Ma's earlier recording of the six suites was well received. His second interpretation, according to Terry Teachout in Time, "is a major musical achievement. Also a distinct improvement on the version he recorded at the age of 26." The updated release exemplified the dynamic approach that Ma brought to his music. Critics praised his ability to play a composition repeatedly, yet interpret it differently each time.
Ma, who named his cello "Sweetie Pie," prepares for performance with meticulous care, yet interprets impromptu on stage in response to the audience; in that way he keeps the music alive. "He is an exceptional musician who rarely, if ever, performs with less than complete commitment. His tone is trademarkable. His physical presence reassuringly expressive, and he smiles," said Philip Kennicott of the Washington Post. Ma personally confided to Lloyd Schwartz of Harvard Magazine, "the desire to communicate with an audience is almost a separate development. That's the main reason I've chosen to perform music. Say there's a twenty-minute concerto. In those twenty minutes I'd like to make that music live, come to life [for the audience]. I can always tell, hear that special hush."
Critics failed to concur on a categorical definition for Ma. Some classified him as a crossover artist; others leaned towards terms like "postmodern" and "eclectic" to describe the man deemed perhaps the finest cellist alive. His interest in electronic music, his mastery of period music, and his espousal of modern genres are intriguing. Ma's repertoire and credits by the end of the 1990s included performances with jazz vocalists, country fiddlers, tango musicians, and other non-classical artists. Known for his irrepressible character, Ma played bluegrass cello at Carnegie Hall in 1999; his recording, Appalachia Waltz, with fiddler Mark O'Connor and Edgar Meyer on bass, topped music charts for well over a year. In 1991, he recorded his Hush album with pop artist Bobby McFerrin. In 1993, Ma went to the Kalahari Desert to record with the bushmen. He played for them, showed them how to bow, and learned about their native instruments. The trip served as an engaging documentary-educational, inspirational, entertaining and above all captivating in the spirit of Yo-Yo Ma. In 1997, Ma released Soul of the Tango on Sony Classics, after delving into most other American genres. Ma's recording was based largely on the work of the late Argentine Tango master, Astor Piazzolla.
Teacher and Friend
Ma lives in Winchester, Massachusetts with his wife, Jill Horner, and two children. His love of children led to guest appearances on the Public Broadcasting System series, "Sesame Street" and "Mister Rogers Neighborhood." Ma considered those to be his finest moments. It was appropriate that his parents named him Yo-Yo, which means "friend." He frequents schools and shares his music with children at every opportunity.
Ma regularly attends the annual festival at Tanglewood Music Center in Berkshire Hills, Massachusetts where he leads master classes. In the spring of 1994 he joined with 19 other prominent cellists in providing classes at the biennial Manchester International Cello Festival. That episode turned memorable when Ma performed David Wilde's recent work, "Cellist of Sarajevo," a composition inspired by the haunting true life experience of a Bosnian cellist named Smailovic who, by chance, was in attendance at Ma's performance and was honored to hear the piece for the first time in his life.
Ma's cello collection includes a 1722 Goffriller and a 1712 Davidoff Stradivari bequeathed to him by the late cellist Jacqueline Du Pre. His preferred concert cello is a restored 1733 Stradivari called the Montagnana. The warm baritone of the Montagnana is a source of comfort to Ma. When he misplaced the $2.5 million instrument in a New York City taxicab one day, he sighed in gratitude upon its return, "The instrument is my voice." Ma's mother completed a biography of her son in 1996. The book, published in China, was translated into English as My Son, Yo-Yo.
Consumers' Research, July 1993.
Economist, February 15, 1992.
New York Times, September 19, 1999; October 19, 1999.
People, December 14, 1992.
Time, January 28, 1991; March 23, 1998.
Town and Country, February 1998.
Washington Post, October 4, 1999.
"1996 Grammy Winners and Nominees," available at http://raven.cybercom.com/~dano/mus-grammy.html (November 11, 1999).
"Yo-Yo Ma," available at http://www.apaics.org/apa/profile_yoyo_ma.html (November 11, 1999).
"Yo-Yo Ma," available at http://www.bso.org/newdesign/staff/bios/ma.htm (November 11, 1999). □
One of the great cellists of the twentieth century, Yo-Yo Ma mastered the standard cello repertoire early in his career and then proceeded to engage in a series of dialogues with other art forms, cultures, and technologies. He uses his cello as a kind of admission ticket to a world of other cultures and collaborators. Although these explorations might seem the ramblings of a dilettante in the hands of a lesser artist, Ma's projects always ring with integrity and a spirit of discovery.
Born in Paris to Chinese parents, Ma began studying the cello at the age of four. At five he gave his first public recital, and at age nine moved to New York with his family and began lessons at the Juilliard School, where he studied with Leonard Rose. At the age of fifteen, Ma was featured in a concert by conductor Leonard Bernstein at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C. Instead of going to college to study music, Ma enrolled at Harvard College to study the humanities, spending summers at the Marlboro Music festival in Vermont. After graduating from Harvard in 1976, he became a full-time cellist, winning the prestigious Avery Fisher Prize in 1978.
Ma became a popular concerto soloist, performing with the world's great orchestras. He is also an accomplished chamber musician who has performed frequently with pianist Emmanuel Ax and violinists Isaac Stern and Jaime Laredo. Ax became Ma's regular partner, and the two toured and recorded extensively, collaborating on albums of the complete cello sonatas of Beethoven and Brahms.
A champion of contemporary music, Ma has premiered dozens of new works by composers such as John Corigliano, Stephen Albert, John Harbison, Leon Kirchner, William Bolcom, Tod Machover, Christopher Rouse, and John Williams.
In the 1990s Ma pushed beyond traditional classical music, teaming up with jazz singer Bobby McFerrin for an album of duets called Hush, which sold more than 1 million copies. He got together with bassist/composer Edgar Meyer and fiddler Mark O'Connor for two recordings of Appalachian country music. He recorded an album of Argentine tangos. And he recorded a children's album, Lulie the Iceberg, which tells a story about the environment.
Ma has worked with composer/inventor Tod Machover, a specialist in exploring and building virtual electronic instruments at MIT. Wiring up Ma while he played, Machover studied the cellist's subtle movements to understand how to build his own electronic instruments.
Ma also recorded the Bach solo cello suites. But instead of merely making a recording of music that many consider the ultimate cello pieces, Ma collaborated with a number of artists in multimedia interpretations. For the first suite he worked with a garden designer; the second suite explored the idea of great architecture and the work of the architect Piranesi; the third was a collaboration with choreographer Mark Morris; the fourth examined music's relationship with society; the fifth was an exploration of Kabuki; and the sixth was a collaboration with the ice dancers Torvill and Dean. The series was broadcast on public television.
At the turn of the twenty-first century, Ma embarked on his next major project—the Silk Road Project, an organization he founded to explore music and cross-cultural pollination along the route of the ancient Central Asian trade routes. Drawing on performers from many countries East and West, playing traditional and classical instruments, the group commissions work by composers from the region. The Silk Road company has toured extensively throughout America and Asia.
These various projects do not mean that Ma has abandoned the cello's traditional repertoire. He is in constant demand in the classical world and continues to perform traditional material. But his explorations into other music genres enrich all the music he performs.
In part, Ma's celebrity as a concert cellist helps make his musical excursions possible. He has been a guest on Sesame Street, has appeared in ads for Apple Computer and American Express, has been a regular performer on public television, and with his personable manner, has attained a crossover appeal in the popular culture.
Ma has made more than fifty recordings and has won fourteen Grammys. Among his many awards are an honorary doctorate in music from Harvard University and the National Medal of Freedom (2001). His cello playing is as warm, engaging, and natural as his personality; listeners are drawn to his music because of its sincerity and directness. Each new idiom he explores seems somehow an extension of a personal musical journey.
Spot Light: Yo-Yo Ma's "Duet" with the Hypercello
Yo-Yo Ma has made a career of expanding what he can do on the cello. So he was the right artist to participate in an early 1990s experiment with the "Hypercello," a creation of MIT composer/inventor Tod Machover. Ma was hooked up with censors on his wrist and fingers and on his bow. The motions were fed into a computer, where they were measured, analyzed, and then fed back in the form of musical responses to what Ma was playing. The Hypercello responded to all of Ma's movements, no matter how slight, sometimes transforming the sound he produced into something else. Or it would accompany what Ma was playing or create new musical lines and sounds, creating a kind of spontaneous, evolving duet. While the instrument was interacting with him, Ma could also respond to what his Hypercello was performing, looping the interactivity of music-making back on itself—a kind of improvisation wrapped inside an improvisation. The human/machine interaction yielded a sense of musical direction. Ma would begin a riff, hear the instrument add a bass accompaniment, and then adjust his line to continue the section. With his electronic instruments, Machover tries to develop ways of extending the musician's technique and interpretive gifts in a manner that sounds as "human" as possible. Ma, always looking for ways of expanding the possibilities for music-making on the cello, was an ideal human collaborator.
Bach: The Cello Suites Inspired by Bach, from the Six-Part Film Series (Sony, 1998); Yo-Yo Ma & Bobby McFerrin: Hush (Sony, 1992). With Emmanual Ax: Prokofiev/Rachmaninov: Sonatas for Cello & Piano (Sony 1991). With Edgar Meyer and Mark O'Connor: Appalachia Waltz (Sony, 1996).
J. Attanas, Yo-Yo Ma: A Life in Music (Evanston, IL, 2003).
Ma, Yo-Yo, brilliant Chinese-American cellist; b. Paris, Oct. 7, 1955. He was born into a musical family active in Paris; his father was a violinist, his mother a mezzo-soprano. He began to study violin as a small child, then graduated to the viola and finally the cello. He was taken to N.Y. when he was 7, and enrolled at the Juilliard School of Music when he was 9; his principal teachers were Leonard Rose and János Scholz. He subsequently received additional musical training at Harvard Univ. In 1978 he was awarded the Avery Fisher Prize. He quickly established a formidable reputation as a master of the cello in his appearances with the great orchs. of the world, as a recitalist, and as a chamber music player, being deservedly acclaimed for his unostentatious musicianship, his superlative technical resources, and the remarke tone of his melodious lyricism. In order to extend his repertoire, he made a number of effective transcriptions for his instrument. In addition to commissioning various contemporary works for his instrument, Ma has broadened his audience by recording bluegrass, tangos, and other popular music genres. In 1998 his recording of the 6 Bach unaccompanied cello suites was released in conjunction with a series of films created in collaboration with several media artists. In addition to numerous Grammy awards, he received an honorary doctorate from Harvard Univ. in 1991 and in 1999 he was awarded the Glenn Gould Prize.
—Nicolas Slonimsky/Laura Kuhn/Dennis McIntire