A joyous presence in the American cultural landscape for more than three decades, Yo-Yo Ma stands as our country's cellist-in-chief as well as the music world's most enthusiastic teacher. His tone is luminous, his reach ambitious, his passion for music infectious. As an appointed United Nations Messenger of Peace, he has organized teaching and mentoring programs, inspiring students across the world to love and honor music. His own collaborations go well beyond the traditional boundaries of classical music-notably in his Silk Road Project-celebrating the universality of music itself.
He is, as the WashingtonPost's Anne Midgette put it in 2011, "the best-known, most versatile, most engaged, music soloist in this country and perhaps in the world.... Rather than resting on his laurels and continuing to perform the same kinds of music in the same way, he has consistently stretched himself throughout his career ...building on his own preternatural affinity for people."
He first picked up the cello at the age of four, and apparently he never stopped. He has played for six American presidents, including the 2009 inauguration of President Obama. The roster of his collaborators is as long as it is surprising, from Emanuel Ax, Daniel Barenboim and Itzhak Perlman to Mark O'Connor and Bobby McFerrin, from Renee Fleming to Dave Brubeck and Wu Tong to Paquito D'Rivera, Mark Morris to James Taylor. Among his 16 Grammy Awards and counting is a Latin Grammy. He has guest-starred on Sesame Street and Mister Rogers' Neighborhood. In 2011, Yo-Yo Ma was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
Difficult to pinpoint given his voracious musical appetites and eclectic tastes, but irresistible to anyone who loves music, Yo-Yo Ma is disarmingly straightforward about his gifts. All he does, he told the New York Times in 1994, is allow people's "being intelligent with their imagination and their hearts, using all of themselves."
"That's the best part of what I do. It gives meaning to me and to my life, makes it worthwhile to live."
Yo-Yo Ma was born in Paris to Chinese parents, first studying the cello with his father. The family moved to New York, where he would spend most of his formative years. He studied the violin and the viola and even flirted with the bass, but the cello claimed his affections for good and at the age of seven he played for Presidents Dwight D. Eisenhower and John F. Kennedy. He made his American television debut at eight, conducted by Leonard Bernstein. He studied with Leonard Rose at the Juilliard School, came under the tutorship of the great Pablo Casals and spent four summers with him in the Marlboro Music Festival. Seeking to expand his conservatory training, he graduated from Harvard University in 1976.
Since that time, Yo-Yo Ma has divided his time among his engagements as soloist with orchestras throughout the world and his recital and chamber music activities, as well as adventurous forays into television and the social media. An exclusive Sony recording artist, he has expanded his recorded repertory beyond the classical to music of Appalachia as well as Brazil, China, and India. All of his 75 Sony albums have entered the Billboard charts as classical best-sellers. Like cello giants Pablo Casals and Mstislav Rostropovich before him, Yo-Yo Ma has enriched the cello repertory and premiered works by, among others, Elliott Carter, Chen Yi, Osvaldo Golijov, John Harbison, Leon Kirchner, Tan Dun, and John Williams. Of his premiere of Philip Glass's monumental cello concerto Naqoyqatsi in the film of that title, the San Francisco Chronicle reported in 2002 that "the presence of Yo-Yo Ma, an artist whose thirst for musical adventure rivals Glass's own, lends the project an edge not present in previous Glass works.... There is a vocal quality to Ma's timbre that humanizes the music as much as if a plangent baritone were singing these long lines."
He founded the Silk Road Project in 1998, establishing a growing network of creative partnerships inspired by the ancient route that stretched from the Mediterranean Sea to the Pacific Ocean. The Project so far has yielded residencies and educational initiatives at the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, Massachusetts; the Nara National Museum in Nara, Japan; The Rhode Island School of Design, the Rubin Museum of Art in New York, the Rietberg Museum in Zurich, Switzerland, and most notably Yo-Yo Ma's alma mater Harvard University. The Silk Road Project's performance-based educational initiatives include workshops with the Silk Road Ensemble at the Tanglewood Music Center, the Boston Symphony Orchestra, and Carnegie Hall.
"A good musician," the cellist once said, "is someone who says: ‘How can I contribute?'"
Always as if simply making music among friends, Yo-Yo Ma has taught the world how to love music across all cultural and national barriers. Through his sheer genius and his impossibly youthful passion for music, he has contributed immeasurably to the joys and peace of our lives.