Yo-Yo Ma reflects on Woodstock and more

Yo-Yo Ma
Poughkeepsie Journal

By John W. Barry

Cellist Yo-Yo Ma is a member of the President’s Committee on the Arts & Humanities, he has received the Presidential Medal of Freedom and he has performed for eight presidents.

So it was interesting, to say the least, to hear this distinguished musician explain the origins of the title for the album released by the musical ensemble he will perform with in the region tonight. The name of the record released by Ma, bass player Edgar Meyer, mandolin player Chris Thile and fiddle player Stuart Duncan is “The Goat Rodeo Sessions.”

“We were thinking about what to call the recording,” Ma said during a recent interview with the Journal. “Chris, with his inventive mind, and Edgar, also, a lot of the pieces we had, had working titles of different kinds of rodeos — “Irish Rodeo,” “Goat Rodeo.” We were looking around, scrounging around for names. Chris looks up in the Urban Dictionary: ‘Goat Rodeo.’ One definition was an aviation term, when a pilot and co-pilot go through incredible storms, engines stop, hail, finally, after a lot of bumps, they land the plane safely. One says, ‘Boy, that was a goat rodeo.’ ”

The Goat Rodeo Sessions: Yo-Yo Ma, Stuart Duncan, Edgar Meyer, Chris Thile with guest vocalist Aoife O’Donovan is set for tonight at Bethel Woods Center for the Arts in Sullivan County, on the site that hosted the Woodstock Music and Art Fair in August 1969.

“This is really exciting, to be able to perform at Bethel Woods,” Ma said. “It’s like going to the Grand Ole Opry and playing there, or Carnegie Hall.”

Ma was born in 1955 to Chinese parents living in Paris and started studying the cello with his father at age 4. His family later moved to New York, where he was raised.

A teenager when Woodstock occurred, Ma said “it took years after, to figure out what went on during this period, what it meant for our country, for everyone.” Ma does remember when Janis Joplin and Jimi Hendrix, both of whom performed at Woodstock, died.

“Hendrix had, to me, a voice that I really loved,” Ma said. “I know that’s something for me. It represents a lot of that time period.”

Tonight Ma will place a contemporary twist on the Woodstock legacy by performing with a diverse group of musicians.

Thile is well-known for the time he spent in the contemporary bluegrass band Nickel Creek.

“Chris Thile is an amazing musician,” said Jeff Anzevino of Highland, founder and board member with the Hudson Valley Bluegrass Association. “While his career was launched in the realm of bluegrass music, even more significant is his ever-expanding versatility with his success with the Punch Brothers and Yo-Yo Ma. And he’s exposing new generations to bluegrass and acoustic music — something that must happen if these traditional art forms are to continue to thrive.”

Meyer has performed with jam band banjo player Bela Fleck, among others. Stuart Duncan has performed with Jerry Douglas, Barbra Streisand and Robert Plant.

“The Goat Rodeo Sessions” record featuring this quartet offers a symphony of strings that transcends any one genre of music.

“I am totally thrilled with the group I am coming with,” Ma said.

Ma first knew Meyer, who introduced him to Thile, and then he met Duncan.

“It’s a bunch of guys that like one another,” Ma said. “They just also love doing what they do. The three of them are great friends and have known each other for years. There is a sense of camaraderie and a trust among them.”

Ma also loves doing what he does.

“Playing the cello — it’s like being with a really good friend and we’ve had a long history together, and you can draw from a whole life of experiences, and you know how to give a good party together,” he said. “It can express all the things that you would like to say — it can come out instead of words. You hear it in different kinds of sounds.”