Elegant, energetic, exuberant, restless, many-faceted Yo-Yo Ma has been called simply one of the greatest musicians on the planet, the finest cellist of his generation, and the best cellist in the world today. Ma, whose mother and father were both musicians, took up the cello when he was only four years old, played his first recital at five, and at six was studying in New York City with renowned cellist Leonard Rose at the famous Julliard School. He began his concert career in Carnegie Hall at age nine.
Since these precocious beginnings Ma moved on to become an internationally renowned soloist and chamber orchestra artist. He has played with major symphonies throughout the world, including Boston, San Francisco, Philadelphia, Toronto, and Minnesota, and has performed with noted musicians such as Emmanuel Ax, Leonard Bernstein, Pablo Casals, Jaime Laredo, Itzhak Perlman, and Isaac Stern.
In 1983 he began a marathon career in recording with Sony Classics. In the years from 1983 to the present he has produced more than one hundred recordings, averaging around 15 each year. These recordings are available in CDs, VHS, and DVD internationally.
The very titles of the recordings (Vivaldi's Cello, Obrigado Brazil, An Appalachian Anthology, The Tango Lesson, Seven Years in Tibet) provide a glimpse into Maes eclectic musical journeys. Preeminent in his broad classical repertoire are his acclaimed interpretations of Bach's Suites for Unaccompanied Cello and Beethoven's Cello Sonatas. But Ma is by no means locked into the classical music tradition. His concerts and recordings reveal rich musical diversity; he has brought his cello into territory ostensibly far from classical music country, bluegrass, Appalachia rhythms, Argentine tangos, and Brazilian choros and sambas.
Ever undertaking journeys symbolic, real, and virtual Ma has traveled the world. His own origins and his stretching of boundaries led him to the Far East and his Silk Route Project, established in 1998. ?I founded the Silk Road Project, he wrote, to study the flow of ideas among different cultures along the Silk Road. . . , the historic trade route that connected the peoples and traditions of Asia with those of Europe, a branch of which ran from Changan in China to the eastern shores of the Mediterranean. The Silk Road Project has been described as striving to bring new ideas, talent, and energy into the world of classical music and at the same time, nurture musical creativity, drawing on diverse and distinguished sources of cultural heritage around the world. In the framework of the project Ma focuses on the flow of ideas from one culture to another and artistic expression ranging from music, to religion, to painting, sculpture, and architecture.
The project's chamber group performs music from Silk Road areas and commissions works from Silk Road composers. Of the project, Ma wrote, I have thought about the culture, religions, and ideas that have been influential for centuries along these historical land and sea routes, and have wondered how these complex interconnections occurred. Ma touched on the philosophy behind the project: We live in a world of increasing awareness and interdependence, and I believe that music can act as a magnet to draw people together. Music is an expressive art that can reach to the very core of one's identity. When we enlarge our view of the world we also deepen our understanding of our own lives and culture. The Brandenton Herald earlier this year wrote, The project grew out of Yo-Yo Ma's desire to bring new ideas, talent, and energy to classical music by exploring how ancient musical traditions are merging into new forms that express the reality of the twenty-first century global village. The project embraces more than music it sponsors a series of performance, exhibition, and educational events with leading museums around the world.
Yo-Yo Ma's success and constant growth come from his persistent urge to learn and teach. With learning, he says, come new insights into standard classical fare. His work with Appalachia, he says, brought him back to 1600 and showed him a whole gamut of stringed instruments related to Asian instruments. He has also experimented with Asian music and instruments, making a special study of the Mongolian morin khuur, the horse fiddle? with strings and bow of horse hair and a pegbox in the shape of a horse's head. It's so hard, he said, to understand that the oldest person in the village might be singing to you, to note it and really get it down.
Ma is always teaching. Wherever he goes he offers spirited master classes and encourages young cellists with a touch on the shoulder or an appropriation of a student's cello for a quick demonstration. Ma glows when working with children, strengthened by their unspoiled (by cynicism) optimism.
Graduating from Harvard in 1976, Ma is thankful for not having chosen a musical university education. Harvard, he said, opened up the world for him (anthropology courses, for example).
Yo-Yo Ma is the recipient of numerous prizes and awards, including an honorary doctorate from Harvard in 1991. He was awarded the Avery Fisher prize in 1978, the National Medal of the Arts in 2001, and the Harvard Arts Medal in 2004. He has received fourteen Grammy Awards, including one for the score of the Oscar-winning film Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.