Yo-Yo Ma and the Goat Rodeo Sessions pull up to Bethel Woods

Yo-Yo Ma
Times Herald-Record

By Steve Israel

Cellist talks about his respect for all music

Say Yo-Yo Ma to most anyone and they think classical music.

But talk to the world-renowned cellist and even before you ask about his Friday concert with the bluegrass ensemble Goat Rodeo at Bethel Woods Center for the Arts, it's clear that Yo-Yo Ma is about a lot more than Bach or Beethoven.

Mention the fact that Bethel Woods is on the site of the 1969 Woodstock festival and he gushes.

"Oh, that's so cool," he says in his soft voice. "To just walk on that hallowed ground ..."

Tell him that Bethel is located in the heart of the Catskills, once home to hundreds of predominantly Jewish resorts, and he mentions the traditional Yiddish/Jewish music, klezmer.

"Oh, I've played with Hankus Netsky," he says, naming the world-renowned leader of the Klezmer Conservatory Band.

And when you explain that Bethel Woods is about a 90-minute drive from the Town of Woodstock, well, Yo-Yo Ma has a musical connection to that, too.

"Bobby McFerrin and I recorded there," he says, mentioning yet another one of his nonclassical collaborations with the acrobatic singer.

And when you finally get around to asking the cellist about the bluegrass-infused music he plays with Goat Rodeo, you learn something else about Yo-Yo Ma. He may have won 16 Grammy Awards and earned some of the most prestigious musical honors in the world — from the Presidential Medal of Freedom to the National Medal of Arts — but he's also one modest man.

Ask him about improvising with Goat Rodeo, and the man whose main musical group — the Silk Road Ensemble — plays everything from surf music to ninth-century Chinese poetry, has a confession.

"I'm too old to be a really good improviser," says the 57-year-old. "My muscles are too slow. But if you gave me a kazoo ..."

Fact is, Yo-Yo Ma leaves the improvisation to the other members of Goat Rodeo (which is actually a term for a really chaotic situation): bassist Edgar Meyer, fiddler Stuart Duncan, mandolinist Chris Thiele and guest vocalist Aoife O'Donovan.

"They're such virtuosos," says the man who's frequently described as a virtuoso himself.

There's even another sort of music this Paris-born cellist with Chinese musician parents plays. That's the rootsy Americana music of one of the pillars of this region: the late Levon Helm of Woodstock. Earlier this year, Yo-Yo Ma joined the Wounded Warrior Band of wounded war veterans for a performance of "Wide River to Cross" from Helm's "Dirt Farmer" album.

What drives Yo-Yo Ma to perform all this music?

"I'm learning constantly," he replies, stating the obvious.