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Yo-Yo Ma: Ready for the Fire

Yo-Yo Ma
San Francisco Classical Voice

By Marianne Lipanovich

Some classical musicians are stars within the genre. Others have become known outside the classical field. And then there’s Yo-Yo Ma. He’s a classical music superstar, of course, but he’s also a musician who has tackled everything from Brazilian rhythms to the music of Appalachia; an educator; an almost insanely prolific recording artist; and a person who actively takes part in promoting music for all. Although his time is limited, he did talk a bit about performing with the San Francisco Symphony this coming week, as well as about some of his recent and upcoming projects.

You’ll be performing with the San Francisco Symphony Jan. 20. Are you looking forward to coming back to the Bay Area? What do you enjoy about working with Michael Tilson Thomas?


I always look forward to coming back to the Bay Area. It’s one of the most culturally exciting areas of the United States. And there is such chemistry between MTT and the San Francisco Symphony; I can’t wait to be part of the combustion.

What do you hope audiences experience from this, or any, performance of yours?

The best part of performing is sharing in something that is deeply felt within a community. One of the things I love about music is the way it enables us to travel to different time periods and faraway places. That those different parts of the world and eras of history will be brought to life in the minds of the audience is one of the great hopes of any performance.

What would you say are some of the highlights of the 30-year compilation CD you’ve made [Yo-Yo Ma: 30 Years Outside the Box, a 90-disc deluxe box set of the cellist’s recorded legacy]?

I think it’s rare to see such a span of life contained in one box. For me, that doesn’t mark an achievement, but serves as a celebration of the numerous friendships and relationships encoded on these CDs.

You’ve also just released a recording of Mendelssohn’s Piano Trios No. 1 and 2, with Emanuel Ax and Itzhak Perlman. How did that come about?

Manny and I think of Mendelssohn as one of the great citizen-musicians. In making this recording, we wanted to not only celebrate the Mendelssohn anniversary and these two great works; we also wanted to celebrate Mendelssohn as a great prodigy, virtuoso, educator, and impresario, and as an incredibly generous colleague.

What should we be looking forward to with the “Silk Road” project and Silk Road Ensemble?

We’re touring to Asia in April, and the Ensemble has a new CD out called Off the Map, with new works by Gabriela Lena Frank, Evan Ziporyn, Angel Lam, and Osvaldo Golijov. I think of the Silk Road Project not only as a performing organization, but also as a laboratory where ideas and new works are incubated. Along those lines, we’re currently engaged in a pilot educational program with sixth-graders in five New York City public schools.

In what direction do you see music in general and classical music in particular heading?

I think there are many different classical musics, and I hope we’re heading toward a world classical-music in which performers and listeners are fellow participants.

What drew you to the cello?

When I was 4 years old, it was the biggest instrument I could play.

If you hadn’t had music, what do you think you would be doing with your life?

People are my passion, so I would definitely be working with people in some way.