The great cellist Yo-Yo Ma was born in Paris in 1955 of Chinese parents. He began studying cello with his father at age three and gave his first public recital at five, first playing the piano, and then a Bach cello suite. He went on to study with Janos Scholz, and then entered the Juilliard School in 1962, where he was a pupil of Leonard Rose. Even as a teenager he was being compared to the great cellist Pablo Casals. Ma graduated from Harvard University, from where he also received an honorary doctorate in 1991, and he has won at least 10 Grammy awards. He lives with his wife and two children in Boston.
Ma is known for his classical recordings, particularly of chamber music, and he regularly joins Emanuel Ax, Isaac Stern, and Jaime Laredo to record works by Beethoven, Brahms, Mozart, Schumann, Dvorak and others. He has also made a beautiful recording of Bach's Unaccompanied Cello Suites as part of a unique collaborative project across artistic disciplines; the project was overseen by Canada's innovative Rhombus Media. For each suite, Ma collaborated with an different artist - kabuki actor Tamasaburo Bando, garden designer Julie Moir Messervey, choreographer Mark Morris, Olympic ice-dancing champions Torvill and Dean, filmmaker Atom Egoyan, and others - and the results were filmed by six different directors (Egoyan did his own). The films are beautiful, each uniquely creative and original, the whole tied together by Ma's gentle, giving presence as he explores the worlds of art, culture, creativity, sexuality, and human interaction. The collaboration with Messervey was to result in a garden to be built in Boston; happily, the city decided not to go ahead with the project, and it's now in Toronto, where it graces our waterfront. I'm pleased that this garden further cements Ma's ties to my city.
One of the things I like most about Ma - besides his prodigious talent - is his openness to art in all its different forms, which the above project illustrates so well. He has recorded jazz with greats Claude Bolling ("Suite for Cello and Jazz Piano Trio") and Stephane Grappelli ("Anything Goes"); American bluegrass/folk music with fiddle player Mark O'Connor and bassist Edgar Meyer (on "Appalachian Waltz" and "Appalachian Journey"); tango music with the recorded ghost of the master Astor Piazzolla ("Soul of the Tango"); an eclectic mix of tunes with vocalist Bobby McFerrin ("Hush"); and contemporary classical music by John Tavener ("The Protecting Veil") and Tan Dun ("Symphony 1997", performed for the official transfer of Hong Kong to China in that year).
Ma is featured on a host of movie soundtracks, including Sally Potter's intriguing The Tango Lesson (featuring music by Piazzolla and others), Seven Years in Tibet by John Williams, and the Oscar award winning Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon by Tan Dun. He travelled to the Kalahari Desert with anthropologist Richard Lee to try to reach out musically to the !Kung; the trip, recorded in a documentary, had amusing results, for the analytical Ma couldn't communicate well with the !Kung, even through an interpreter, and when they played for him, he tried to copy what they were doing, whereupon they promptly changed their rhythms, probably trying to engage, but succeeding only in frustrating, him. In addition to his busy recording and performing career, Ma is involved in the education of young musicians through master classes and other pedagogical activities.
Probably the most famous classical musician in the world today, Yo-Yo Ma plays a 1733 Montagnana cello from Venice and a 1712 Davidoff Stradivarius bequethed to him by the late Jacqueline du Pré.
I - and 200 other people - went to meet Yo-Yo Ma at a bookstore here in Toronto a few years ago. I'm not in the habit of this kind of thing and felt kind of silly as I stood in the queue, clutching a CD for him to autograph, but he was amazingly nice and personable, listening carefully to my halting anecdote about hearing a tune he'd recorded with Claude Bolling on the radio and passing a tortured weekend before I could find out the name of the recording. He gave the man in front of me in the line, who he'd met only once and didn't really remember (I was eavesdropping), a hug when they parted after a few minutes of conversation. This day, by the way, he had flown in from Boston by a convoluted route, for the east coast was in the grip of a snowstorm the likes of which I've never seen before or since in Toronto; he had a concert that night, but still he came, wrapped in a big coat, to meet his fans. By all outward appearances Ma is a genuine, and genuinely admirable, person. And the concert, by the way, was sublime.
A Sony artist, you can find a discography of Ma at