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Yo-Yo Ma: Profiling the world’s greatest living cellist

// Dec 14,2012

First published on 7 Jun 2012. Updated on 7 Jun 2012.
Time Out traces the journey of the man behind the Silk Road Project, the world’s greatest living cellist, Yo-Yo Ma.

We could call Yo-Yo Ma the world’s greatest ambassador of the cello – that is, if it weren’t so limiting. An artistic omnivore, the 15-time Grammy winner has performed cello bluegrass, improvised with Bobby McFerrin, honoured tango master Astor Piazzolla, recorded with the bushmen of the Kalahari, played on film scores such as Memoirs of a Geisha and collaborated with Kabuki actors and Mark Morris’ dancers on a controversial accompaniment to Bach’s ‘Cello Suites’.

He has played on five continents for a host of presidents, but cites his proudest moment as appearing on Sesame Street, boasting that he knew Tickle Me Elmo back when he was just Elmo. ‘Yo-Yo Ma is the greatest living cellist today,’ says fellow cellist Wang Jian. ‘He has inspired many young players, and he has also broadened the cello’s appeal to many listeners.’

Born 1955 in Paris to a violinist-professor father and a singer mother who had fled China’s political chaos, he began with violin and viola but ‘settled’ for cello at age three, and memorised a Bach Suite by four. At five the prodigy made his concert debut at Paris University, by seven he had relocated to New York and was performing for then-president John F Kennedy. A year later he was on television with Leonard Bernstein, before entering Julliard at nine.

He later eschewed the conservatory for Harvard, finding freedom in its diversity. Constrained by a strict upbringing and laser-focused study, Ma channelled a short-lived teenage rebelliousness into a voracious appetite for liberal arts. As a freshman, he was already performing 30 international concerts a year, but always had time to play a friend’s composition or join a Gilbert and Sullivan pit orchestra.

All this sowed the seeds for what is surely the most eclectic taste in music, perhaps best exemplified by his Silk Road Project. Designed to trace the historic exchange of musical ideas along the world’s most famous trade route, this venture feeds both his restless brain and his famously giving soul by mentoring young, brilliant and otherwise obscure artists.

‘[Ma] has a genius for bringing together musicians from different backgrounds and making great things happen,’ says jazz cellist Matt Brubeck. ‘Despite his enormous fame he is humble, generous and one of the most delightful people I have ever worked with.’ Those who saw his 2008 Beijing Silk Road concert may remember the extended encores; shaking off hysterical cries of ‘Ma Yo-Yo’ from the packed house, he raced around stage cuing solos from duduk, tabla and kamancheh musicians, drawing applause from an audience who only wanted him.

Ma calls himself a musical ‘Waldo’, showing up in unexpected places; others describe him as a giant sponge that absorbs a myriad of influences. The same way basic niceties or religious tenets cross cultural lines, Ma believes music may one day evolve and overlap so much as to create a unified global style. As the ancient artery between Europe and Asia, today’s Silk Road region houses two-thirds of the world’s population and some of the planet’s greatest cultural conventions; even traditional Chinese instruments, such as the pipa and erhu, hail from the Middle East and were passengers on the famous road.

But Ma is not without controversy (although, you have to squint). Music lovers applaud his warm tone and stage presence, while acknowledging his commissions have expanded the cello repertoire more than anyone since Rostropovich.

However, naysayers cry that he has lost his focus, and wonder why being the world’s greatest cellist isn’t enough. But for Ma, it’s about the music. ‘Yo-Yo Ma is a unique case of talent, personality and charisma,’ says frequent collaborator cellist Carlos Prieto. ‘His work has drawn unprecedented attention to the cello while enriching music, culture and understanding in many ways.’ As legacies go, that’s hard to top.

Nancy Pellegrini

Originally posted on Time Out Shanghai.