Yo-Yo Ma Musician of the Year

12.01.08
Yo-Yo Ma, Silk Road Ensemble
Musical America

By Alan Rich

He is the unchallenged cello virtuoso of our time. Not only has he mastered the traditional classics from the baroque to the moderns, but with his Silk Road Project he has extended the normal boundaries of his instrument toward infinity.

Now here’s something to ponder,” says Leonard Bernstein. “A seven-year-old cellist from China, with his sister at the piano, playing some French music....”

The cellist is Yo-Yo Ma—the name that Kramer shouts aloud in ecstasy on Seinfeld, the jet-setting cellist at home in Bach, tango, jazz, or on the Road to Mandalay. Here, in 1960, he is barely the height of his cello, playing with Yeou-Cheng Ma on one of the trove of small YouTube treasures that encompass his great art from then to now. “This was Alexander Schneider’s doing,” the current-day Yo-Yo Ma remembers on a telephone chat from Chicago during rehearsals for his latest Silk Road project. “My father had introduced me to Schneider—you know, he was this great champion of young musicians—and Schneider brought me to Pablo Casals for a TV program to raise funds to build the Kennedy Center, with Lenny as emcee.”
 
Who was this baby-faced phenom or, better, how had he gotten so far so soon? He was born in Paris (1955), where his parents—Chinese musicians who had met there and married—eased him into music almost as soon as he could walk. (In New York in the ’60s I knew the violinist Si-Hon Ma, a distant relative, who, even then, spoke with awe about this Parisian prodigy.) Through family connections he was thrust early on into the New York crowd. In his teens he was already playing chamber music at Carnegie Hall with Schneider and the Isaac Stern gang. “As a young man,” he says, “I was pretty un-selfconscious, and that’s something you want to treasure as you grow up. This is what makes the music profession work. You tap somebody on the shoulder—maybe before he’s not quite ready—and you show him what the system is all about.”
 
Pablo Casals was, and remains, a constant idol. They had quality time together at Marlboro: the eager, omnivorous youngster and the wise patriarch, already in his nineties, once described as the greatest ever to draw a bow. “He was like a sculptor,” says Ma, “in the way he could articulate a phrase, like carving things out of stone and yet insisting on maintaining an endless variety. Not only with his cello, but also on the podium, he became this incredible, energizing force.”
 
And then there are those Bach Suites, six masterworks that explore the expressive range of the cello as the Well-Tempered Clavier does the keyboard. Casals is credited with bringing those works to public notice, and yet his recordings—now some 70 years old—reflect a Romantic attitude toward tempo and phrasing that is simply out of touch with modern scholarship. Yo-Yo Ma has made his own interesting statement on these Suites twice, in 1983 and 1998 on Sony Classical, most recently in a set that also included CD-ROM visual counterparts: a Mark Morris dance number, some eye-appealing garden scenery, and, if you’re ready, an ice-skating pas de deux with the Olympic team of Torvill and Dean—who, says the announcer on the promotional disc, “have done as much for ice-skating as Bach has done for the cello.”
 
“The Bach Suites were the first music I played as a soloist,” says Ma. “I knew the Casals recordings and other recordings as well, and over the years I learned to make my own choices. One thing is certain, however. With all my regard for Casals, if I tried to imitate his performance it would come out wrong.”
 
It was a well-tempered musician who, at 17, showed up to begin a Harvard education, with a major in music and a strong admixture of anthropology. “I simply wanted to learn what it is that people do. I really came into my own when I was thrown in with people passionate about things other than what I was passionate about.”
 
From this involvement grew the breadth of passion that now illuminates the art of Yo-Yo Ma over a range of interests astonishingly broad for any single individual. Hear it on the concert stage, as he blends his great instrument into the sublime outpouring of melody that came to Antonín Dvorák in his Cello Concerto, to Brahms in the passion in his F-major Sonata, to Ernest Bloch, when his Schelomo embodied the outcry of an ancient, oppressed people. Hear it, too, in the lovely expansiveness of his work as a chamber musician, joining the pianist Emanuel Ax as they discourse in subtle exploration on the Cello Sonatas of Beethoven, five works that trace the composer’s emerging states of mind from the youthful exuberance of the works of Opus 5 to the mysteries in the fugal convolutions of Opus 102. There’s an evening’s worth of music to take home and ponder!
 
And hear it in the latter-day passion that now has come into flower as the Silk Road Project, an occupation that does not as much obliterate the normal boundaries of a cello virtuoso’s career (which, let’s face it, are somewhat narrow compared to those of a violinist) as extend those boundaries toward infinity. The spirit behind the Silk Road Project is the message that would befall any brilliantly endowed musician confronted with the broad expanse of worldwide culture as administered in an enlightened education: that music can no longer be regarded as the prisoner of geography, that it exists the same everywhere—only with different orchestration.
 
Specifically, in 1998 at Tanglewood, Ma undertook to gather together music, musicians’ poetry, and poets who plied their arts along the great trade routes through Asia and into Europe from as far back as the first millennium: songs of love and religious fervor, music for dance and festivity, a repertory that had once stirred the imagination of composers when the first Gamelans were brought to Paris in the historic Universal Exposition of 1889; now it deserved far more intensive study. As an earlier generation was stirred by its first hearings of these exotic sounds and harmonies—Debussy, in such a work as Pagodes, from the three-movement solo piano set Estampes, or Ravel in the song of the Chinese Teacup from his opera L’Enfant et les sortilèges—the Silk Road members have joined their efforts to explore and re-create the poetry and music of ancient minstrels and nomads along that Road and—far further—to create a full-scale repertory of contemporary music, incorporating the harmonies and the instrumentation to reach eloquently across centuries.
 
The first Silk Road concert in New York took place at Carnegie Hall in the spring of 2002, a mingling of Christian, Jewish, Muslim, and Buddhist cultures brought together, as it happened, while echoes of the September 11 upheaval still freshly resounded. The program offered an amazing mix: indigenous music of ethnic groups, some actually residing in the New York area, singers from Mongolia, Uzbekistan, Azerbaijan performing, in brilliant native garb, haunting new music composed for Ma, and some repertory works—piano trios by Ravel and Shostakovich—to demonstrate that foreign musical flavors had already infiltrated the standard concert repertory. The program was hugely successful; the original ensemble stayed together and grew. In recent years Ma has installed a Silk Road ensemble in a specific city for an extended residency—most recently Chicago—to mingle with a city’s cultural institutions, perform in situations large and small, and spread the basic awareness of music as a worldwide phenomenon. The Chicago project, in fact, has borne fruit in an exhilarating sequence on a recent Sony Classical disc fetchingly titled “New Impossibilities,” where music by composers as well-known as Osvaldo Golijov and Zhou Long stands beside exciting exploratory scores by younger Silk Roaders, with the cello of Yo-Yo Ma and the resonance of the Chicago Symphony bridging the cultural divide.
 
The disc represents the fruition of a year’s residency in which the Silk Road members infiltrated the cultural web of Chicago, in partnership with the Symphony, the Art Institute, and the City’s Cultural Affairs Department to produce, within a year’s time, some 250 performances, exhibitions, workshops, and family and school programs related to the Silk Road history and theme. Chicago Symphony-goers were given access to multi-cultural instrumental demonstrations during intermissions at Orchestra Hall. Across the street at the Art Institute, Afro-Cuban musicians joined a jam session. “Like working in a giant laboratory,” says Ma.
 
And yet the Chicago “laboratory” was only one of Silk Road’s explorations. In September 2008 Ma began a new project, blending his cello into the playing of musicians from Iran and Central Asia to celebrate another world of mystical visions, music, and poetry, kicking off a nationwide tour in the vast but welcoming premises of the Hollywood Bowl, where previous Silk Road appearances had drawn 18,000-capacity crowds. Central to this new celebration is the legendary Sufi poet Rumi, one of the world’s most beloved, compassionate humanists for over 800 years, whom the BBC News once described as “the most popular poet in America.” More than 20 artists, eight of them new to the U.S., participate in this unprecedented celebration of Persian music and culture. The Whirling Dervishes of Damascus perpetuate a dance said to derive from Rumi’s spontaneous poetic outpourings. The troubadour Nour Mohammed Dorpour from South Khorasan performs his extraordinary renditions of Rumi’s poetry. And all the while, Yo-Yo Ma himself, like the proud paterfamilias of a worldwide family, joins in the celebration with the silken collaboration of his cello, never as a soloist but always a catalytic force.
 
“I don’t know what classical music is; I have no idea,” says Ma. “I think I remember Bernstein saying something like, ‘It is exact music.’ I have a slightly different view: In this world in our era nobody grows up with one kind of music.”
 
Take the matter of intonation. “Working with Pablo Casals and Alexander Schneider, you were always taught that half steps were really close together. That’s correct intonation for string playing, but it’s not the same tuning for the piano, so you make that adjustment. Finally, I started learning the Persian dastagh scale, where if you started on D the E-flat immediately sounds sharp. With an hour’s work any musician can acknowledge these as the beautiful notes; you can easily get your ear inside a scale or mode.”
 
Does his Silk Road work, especially his work with non-Western scales and harmonies, affect his playing of the repertory? What about the Dvorák Concerto, which already leans toward folkish influences? Critic Alex Ross asked the same question recently.
 
Dvorák was very open in the process of finding his voice,” Ma responded, “in playing with folkish melodies and folkish grooves. The rhythmic invention is often overlooked and quite amazing. The inner voices almost never repeat the same rhythmic patterns—it’s a constant invention that is almost a subtext for the coding of his voice.
 
“All this work makes me wonder whether we are heading toward something like world classical music. . . . If we want to preserve a tradition, the best way to preserve it is to let it evolve.”
 
And so, there is Yo-Yo Ma, the unchallenged cello virtuoso who, within the range of his own instrument, has broadened the range of possibilities far beyond what anyone might consider the cello’s standard territory: Bach Suites, five Beethoven Sonatas and two by Brahms, a clutch of concertos with the supremely expressive Dvorák at the top of everyone’s list. Beyond any of this he has delved deeply into a range of folk music—Appalachian in cahoots with bassist Edgar Meyer, Argentine with notable tango bands, jazz excursions with Bobby McFerrin. At home in Cambridge (with wife, son, and daughter) his
mantle-shelf sags with his 16 Grammys, his Avery Fisher Prize (1978), Glenn Gould Prize (1999), and on and on.
 
His companions on the journey include two instruments of notable lineage. “My Montagnana,” he says, “is the baritone of the pair; its lowest string sounds the strongest. The older Strad is the tenor instrument; the top string sounds the best. At the start I played each instrument for a year, so that I could begin to internalize the personality of each.
 
“You know, it’s true to an amazing extent how much a player and an instrument develop a relationship. The fibers of the wood begin to adapt; it’s almost as though they begin to know what he wants. Yes, I experiment with new instruments, and some of the latest ones are very good. In the last 25 years the quality of modern instrument building has gone up exponentially. In the golden years in Italy, every violin maker lived on the same street, so to speak, so that ideas flowed freely back and forth. Now the computer makes the same thing possible, and so knowledge is flowing, and there are excellent builders in France, Germany, England . . . and Utah.”
 
Utah?
 
“Yes, Utah. The hot, dry air seems to be just right for builders, and so there are several good ones there.”
 
Would he ever abandon this repertory of concertos and sonatas, to devote himself full time to any of these other interesting projects that have seized his imagination? “Never,” says Yo-Yo Ma. “They’re my best friends.”
 
Alan Rich’s most recent book is a collection of his writings titled So I’ve Heard: Notes of a Migratory Music Critic (Amadeus, 2006). He currently writes for Bloomberg News and his blog (www.soiveheard.com). Among many distinguished posts, he was the music critic of LA Weekly from 1992 until 2008.