35 Who Made a Difference: Yo-Yo Ma | People & Places | Smithsonian

35 Who Made a Difference: Yo-Yo Ma

Humanitarian, globe-trotting teacher, good sport, ice-dancing fan and heckuva nice guy. Oh, and he plays the cello

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If Yo-Yo Ma didn't exist, no novelist in the world would have dared invent him. The combination of virtues—musical, intellectual, personal—is simply too implausible.

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I suppose readers would believe a fictional character who was one of the finest cellists in the world—after all, somebody has to be—and they would likely accept the idea that gorgeous tone, impeccable technique and boundless interpretive sophistication are all necessary parts of that designation. They probably wouldn't even balk at a performing repertoire that included standard masterpieces, newly commissioned classical works and a host of cross-cultural and interdisciplinary projects. But to go a step further and claim that this artistic paragon was also the nicest person in the classical music business—universally renowned for his modesty, amiability and collegial spirit—would be pushing credulity.

And yet it's all true. At 50, Ma has established himself as an instrumentalist of extraordinary technical gifts and expressive directness. But he is also a reminder that musical excellence can coexist alongside prodigious human decency. In Ma's case, these are not distinct attributes. His personal warmth and generosity inform his playing, making every performance a richly human interaction with his listeners. In addition to being a solo virtuoso, he is a committed chamber player and artistic partner; his collaborations with his longtime duo partner, the pianist Emanuel Ax, and with artists from all parts of the musical and cultural spectrum—even ice dancers—are notable for their easy give-and-take. Ma boasts a megawatt smile and a lack of self-importance that would seem disingenuous in a lesser artist. He has been one of People magazine's Sexiest Men of the Year, bantered with the Muppets on "Sesame Street" and seen his name serve as a punch line on "Seinfeld."

But Ma isn't celebrated simply because his name can raise a laugh when spoken in conjunction with that of Boutros Boutros-Ghali. It's because he can make music the universal language that it's sometimes claimed to be. His performances of the cornerstones of the cello repertoire—beginning with Bach's Six Suites for Unaccompanied Cello and continuing through the major showpieces by Schumann, Saint-Saëns, Tchaikovsky, Dvorak, Prokofiev and Britten—combine technical razzle-dazzle with plain-spoken eloquence. When he plays Bach, you hear the composer's profundity, but you also hear what so many performers miss—the buoyant dance rhythms, the ingenuity and the sense of fun.

And unlike many classical virtuosos whose careers are devoted almost exclusively to the same small circle of recognized masterpieces, Ma's musical interests extend far beyond the tried and true. Among his more than 50 recordings are discs devoted to Argentinian tango and Brazilian dance music, collaborations with country crossover artists Mark O'Connor and Edgar Meyer, movie soundtracks, and a wide range of contemporary classical music by such composers as Tan Dun, Philip Glass and Peter Lieberson.

Since 1998, Ma has devoted much of his attention to the Silk Road Project, which he launched to explore and celebrate the music of civilizations in Asia, Europe and the Middle East. Named for the legendary network of trade routes that once extended from China across the Asian subcontinent to the Mediterranean, the project offers newly composed and traditional music that blends strains from Iran, Turkey, Azerbaijan, China, Mongolia and more. The project, which was the centerpiece of the Smithsonian's 2002 Folklife Festival, has spawned a flurry of performances, recordings and educational programs by the Silk Road Ensemble—a collective of musicians in which Ma, characteristically, serves as but one among equals.

Ma was born in Paris in 1955 to Chinese émigré parents, both of them musicians. The family moved to New York City in 1962. He and his older sister, Yeou-Chang, who plays the violin, were both prodigies—the two performed that year before President Kennedy and the first lady—but, still, Ma came slowly to the life of a professional musician. He studied humanities at Harvard, and although he had kept up his musical pursuits at the Juilliard School of Music and the Marlboro Music Festival while in his teens, it wasn't until after he graduated from college in 1976 that his career began in earnest.

Ma's technical brilliance and his insatiable curiosity about the entire range of musical experience quickly paid off. It took him only a few years to master the standard cello repertoire, after which he set out to create new worlds to explore. He commissioned concertos from composers as diverse as the modernist Leon Kirchner (a mentor from his Harvard days), the neo-Romantic Richard Danielpour and the film composer John Williams. He collaborated on a series of short films based on the Bach Suites with artists such as choreographer Mark Morris, filmmaker Atom Egoyan and ice dancers Torvill and Dean.

I've heard Ma perform countless times, and each occasion was an event to be cherished. But my favorite memory of him comes from a 1990 appearance with Bobby McFerrin and the San Francisco Symphony. Ma and McFerrin improvised together, and the two got on splendidly. Then, after intermission, McFerrin led the orchestra in Beethoven's Seventh Symphony—and there was Ma, sitting in the back row of the orchestra's cello section, playing along and grinning like a kid who'd just slipped past the guards at the ballpark and positioned himself behind third base. By any reckoning, he should have been relaxing in his dressing room or heading back to the hotel. But there was music going on, and he couldn't stay away.

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