Multiple Grammy-winning cellist Yo-Yo Ma has a celebrity status and appeal that stretch far beyond fans of classical music. His success is due to a willingness to try new things, a genuine wish to share what he enjoys, plus a mastery of his instrument that comes through regardless of the musical style.
Ma was born in Paris and, as the child of two musicians, naturally began music lessons very early, trying piano and all the string instruments before settling on cello. His first public performance was at the age of five. Ma’s family moved to New York when Ma was seven so he could study with Janos Scholz. Before the age of ten, Ma had performed for Dwight D. Eisenhower and John F. Kennedy, and had appeared on television with his sister in a concert led by Leonard Bernstein and on The Tonight Show. Ma became a student of Leonard Rose at Juilliard, but did not complete his studies there. He was inspired by seeing the commitment of nonagenarian Pablo Casals at the Marlboro Festival and enrolled at Harvard to finish his degree.
Ma received the Avery Fisher Prize in 1978, and his breakout album was 1983’s Bach: The Six Unaccompanied Cello Suites. Many composers, including William Bolcom, Tod Machover, John Corigliano, Christopher Rouse, and Bright Sheng, have written pieces for him. Ma worked with Tan Dun on his Symphony 1997 and the score for Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and with John Williams on the scores for Seven Years in Tibet and Memoirs of a Geisha. During the 1980s, many of Ma’s recordings were traditional repertoire with pianist Emanuel Ax and violinist Isaac Stern. In the mid-’90s, he returned to the Bach Suites, recording them for six short films in collaboration with director Atom Egoyan, ice dancers Torvill & Dean, dancer Mark Morris, and other artists. He also began exploring other types of music: improvising alongside Bobby McFerrin on Hush (1992), then bluegrass with Edgar Meyer and Mark O’Connor on Appalachia Waltz (1996). In 1998, Ma founded the Silk Road Ensemble to explore the music of cultures found along the early trade route. His popular releases include 2003’s Obrigado Brazil; 2004’s Vivaldi’s Cello; and 2011’s Goat Rodeo Sessions, with Edgar Meyer, Chris Thile, and Stuart Duncan. Ma would collaborate again with Thile and Meyer for 2017’s Bach: Trios, a collection of new string arrangements of J.S. Bach piano pieces.
In 2001 he was awarded the American National Medal by the National Endowment for the Arts, and in 2006 he was named one of the United Nations’ Peace Ambassadors. He has served on the President’s Committee on the Arts and Humanities and worked with outreach programs with the Chicago Symphony and, with the Silk Road Ensemble, the New York public schools. Ma has appeared on television’s Sesame Street, The Simpsons, and The Colbert Report and at events such as the 2002 Olympic Games opening ceremonies, Barack Obama’s 2009 inauguration, and a service honoring Boston Marathon bombing victims. ~ Patsy Morita