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.
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."
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.
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.
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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). □