Interview with cellist Yo-Yo Ma

01.22.13
Yo-Yo Ma
San Francisco Examiner

By Elijah Ho

Yo-Yo Ma has earned the respect and affection of audiences and musicians worldwide. The former student of Leonard Rose has been honored with sixteen Grammy awards and the Presidential Medal of Freedom. This Thursday, he appears in recital with pianist Kathryn Stott at Cal Performances in Berkeley (tickets); they perform at Stanford’s newly opened Bing Hall on the 27th. Below is a transcript of our recent conversation with Yo-Yo Ma. (A selection of this interview can be found in the San Francisco Examiner newspaper).

EH: Are you deeply concerned or discouraged by the direction that classical music has taken since the time of your predecessors – the age of Casals, Heifetz, and Horowitz, etc ? How do you convince a new generation of youths of the importance of creativity, the expressions of deeper meaning, and the strength of the musical traditions from which you come ?

Ma: I think every generation has to discover for themselves what is important. Since, by definition, every new generation experiences things that are totally different from an older generation, you can live side-by-side with someone of another generation and experience and choose entirely different realities. This is especially true in a fast-changing world. If I don’t keep up with, let’s say, teenage movies and television shows, then the forms of expression that stem from these are things that I’m not going to understand. When these teenagers grow up, they will base their actions on what make sense to them, and they will have to choose.

Now, the fact that I think history or knowledge of our planetary history is important, may only be important to somebody else if they see value in what their existence means. You can have a society without traditions that looks only at the present and the future. Now, I think we get into trouble when we rub shoulders against people – it could be your neighbor or your colleague – whose actions and thinking are based solely on traditions and history. I’ll give you two examples.

After 9/11, the word ‘crusades’ was mentioned. The crusades, in most of America, happened so, so long ago that it’s just not significant, but in other parts of the world, it was as if it was yesterday. Jiang Zemin, the former president of China came to the States and visited Seattle. They came to Seattle as guests, and it was fine. But when President Clinton was invited to stay in Beijing, American security brought their dogs - which we see in airports sniffing for things like drugs, vegetables, farming materials - different dogs for different things. And the Chinese were offended because Jiang Zemin was of an age when he remembered signs of ‘No Chinese, No Dogs’. And who could have thunk that the American security detail of dogs would be offensive ? But that’s a kind of cultural knowledge that is incredibly important in diplomacy.

The tradition of classical music and the opera is such that it used to be the place where social intercourse could take place between all parts of society: politicians, industrialists, artists, citizens, etc. That tradition, I think, still exists, but it’s much, much more diluted. I think that what we don’t think is important today, may suddenly become important tomorrow.

It pays to pay attention to everything around and to understand why it’s there, what the placement is, and to be able to start from the inside. It is an artistic enterprise, and starting from the inside is the way to go; it’s something that has to happen organically. So it’s not about acquisition of information, and it’s not even about knowledge, it’s about a real insider’s appreciation. And that goes with languages too.

If you speak somebody else’s language, you might speak it poorly, but it shows that you paid attention and you care. This is something from the inside. The fact that we can all speak English, that’s fine for business. But if you really want to develop more of a relationship, if you want to say deeper things, it becomes important. To take the easy way out, just speak English, but if you want to care more, learn how somebody else thinks. I think that would be my argument for caring about other traditions and other ways of thinking. Other people very often may not see the world the way you see it.

EH: Your repertoire extends far beyond the canon of “classical” music: Bluegrass, Chinese, Argentinian tango, etc. Are there limits of expression and communication with respect to the western “classical” repertoire ?

Ma: I think if you look carefully at the differences between, say, Argentinian and Brazilian music, they are in some ways similar to those between Brahms and Tchaikovsky, Bartok and Schoenberg, and even Mozart and Haydn. The western classical music canon is actually a huge variety of different types of music: sacred, secular, court, folk, Gypsy, Roma, etc.

When you hear gypsy music in Haydn, do you play it in Gypsy style ? There are, as you know, people playing period instruments in period-style as well. Do you play the fortepiano or the clavichord ? There is so much variety that I think we tend to lump everything into one category.

With Argentinian music, Ástor Piazzolla, as you know, was a student of Nadia Boulanger and he was well-schooled. Boulanger, being the epicenter of twentieth century contemporary classical music, was actually teacher to both Piazzolla and the Brazilian, Egberto Gismonti. And Boulanger encouraged them to develop and believe in the music they grew up with, in addition to whatever else they learned. So I think, for some reason, we draw either a cultural or a linguistic firewall, but when you look carefully, that firewall is a human construct rather than an impenetrable linguistic one.

EH: A great Juilliard teacher once told us that, “Tone is character, tone is not gravy”. In his famous treatise on violin-playing, Carl Flesch also described playing as a craft, a science, and an art. Does an artist have to be of deeply profound character and knowledge in order for an audience to feel that something worthwhile and unique is being revealed on stage ?

Ma: Sound is from the friction of the choices that people make. And so ultimately, yes, character does come through when you listen to the priorities people have. I don’t think I can make large pronouncements on what art is. You know, ‘Oh, I want something beautiful!’ - but maybe some people want gravy and others want to convey physical difficulty. Musicians are constantly making these choices, and each according to their ability. So mastery is, ‘Can you actually have the choice to make?’. You know, sometimes in artistic endeavors, a weakness can become a strength, and vice-versa. Let’s say you have the world’s biggest sound on the piano – and that’s a great thing to have – but let’s say you’re overusing it; that becomes a weakness. It’s really the choices that determine and give a sense of who you are, and I think this happens at any level.

EH: Much of music has been set to or, at least, with forms of dance in mind. Can you describe your experience working with dancers ? What is an indispensable facet of the dancer’s craft that musicians should be made aware of ?

Ma: The idea that dancers work with and against gravity, and they follow the laws of physics. You can play an octave leap or a two-octave leap or a seven-octave leap on the piano, as if there is no distance with two hands. But if you were to play with one hand, there would be a distance. So the question of distance, on certain instruments, is a physical one. But there are times, with certain instruments, when you want to express distance when there isn’t - so it’s a metaphysical one. To be able to know that difference – you go into a world where physical distance and gravity are laws that you have to interpret because your body is the instrument – and to be consistent in that is incredibly important. It’s sort of like having a toy that does many things, so many that you actually don’t know what game you want to play. But if you have a toy with limitations, you know exactly what game you’re playing. The game is, essentially, a person’s language of expression.

EH: I am very curious to know which of the great instrumentalists of the Golden Age have made the greatest impression on you ? As an aside, did you ever have the opportunity to hear Vladimir Horowitz in his element ?

Ma: Yes, I heard him once in Toronto at Massey Hall. I got one ticket to one of his Sunday afternoon concerts and I was right up, last row of the balcony. And it was just extraordinary. He played Scriabin, Rachmaninoff, Scarlatti, etc. And the whole concert, he played between pianissimo and mezzo-forte, until he played the Stars and Stripes encore. Then he just blew the roof off the hall (laughs). And it was extraordinary. I loved Horowitz, I love hearing Richter recordings. I have some great recordings of Richter playing the Beethoven Sonatas. I also treasure my Schnabel Schubert recordings, I love Dinu Lipatti’s last concert in Switzerland, and a lot of early Glenn Gould. I have great memories of great pianists. I never heard Rubinstein live, but I once watched the DVD of his concert in Moscow, and it was extraordinary, just extraordinary. These are the gold standards, and I still hold on to them; lots of great people.

EH: A question we ask every artist – and perhaps this is most applicable to you – is it possible for a great instrumentalist to surpass the vision of a composer, even the likes of Beethoven, Mozart, or a Schumann ?

Ma: First of all, I don’t think of the idea of surpassing, but I think a lot about going one-on-one. A composition is always more than the sum of its parts. In other words, a really good piece of music is more than itself. It’s sort of like a prism, which you can see from each facet a single totality. And so it invites a multitude of different points of view. I think the purpose of a piece of music is significant when it actually lives in somebody else. A composer puts down a code, and a performer can activate the code in somebody else. Once it lives in somebody else, it can live in others as well. Over time, it modulates, or you get different varietals. It is the power of a piece in its ability to live in different peoples.

EH: Mr. Ma, thank you very much for taking the time today. We look forward to seeing you at Berkeley on the 24th.

Ma: Thank you very much, Elijah. It was my pleasure!