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Yo-Yo Ma: philosopher as well as cellist

Yo-Yo Ma
The Vancouver Sun

  Cellist finds dual focus in the bigger picture as well as here and now

  By David Gordon Duke

On March 16, superstar cellist Yo-Yo Ma pays his latest visit to Vancouver, a sold-out-long-ago recital at the Orpheum, with pianist Katherine Stott, his recital partner for some 25 years. Born in Paris, trained at Juilliard, Ma is music royalty, one of a handful of contemporary artists known and admired well beyond the conventional boundaries of the classical audience, an artist with a social/educational agenda. Quite simply, Ma is one of the remarkable musical figures of our time.

It was an extremely cold day in Massachusetts (“I do wish this winter would end!” said Ma) when I caught up with Ma at home to chat about music and life. Profoundly apologetic, he was running a bit late in an already overly full day; characteristically generous, although we were supposedly limited to 10 minutes, he conversed for a full half-hour.

Q: The pressures of a very public life has costs. How do you plan for the irritations and challenges of fame? How, indeed, does one cope with being a superstar?

A: I can shop for dinner like anyone else. I am not (David) Beckham! Maybe, if I walk into a conservatory building, there’s a chance someone might recognize me, but probably they’d just go, “Oh, a Yo-Yo Ma look-alike!”

It comes down to a question of values. It’s my wife, it’s my children — but particularly my wife — who would never let me get away with superstar behaviour. She keeps me real, which I resent bitterly. There’s so much to be done in the world that you have to rely on your values to steer you, and your family to anchor you.

Q: Part of the outreach you’re known for is curiosity about the music of the world, not just the world of classical music. Now, with your Silk Road Project (which connects cultures through music) one of the world music trailblazers, I wonder if that exposure had changed the way you play? For example, when you present a work like Falla’s folk-derived Canciones Populares Españolas, as you will here in Vancouver, is it different because of the Silk Road experience?

A: Absolutely. The experience really opens your eyes if you are receptive to it. In the broadest sense, I feel more human now. In the concert hall I’m not plying my trade, I’m just there, asking, “So, what are we going to do today? What are we going to explore?”

Those jitters you feel when you are being judged, they’re pretty much gone. I basically think that if you open yourself up to a lot of things, history kind of makes you step back from what you are doing. You just feel, “Let’s make something happen!” It’s a very slight change in attitude, but it does have ramifications in terms of what comes out.

Essentially you face an audience, you face your colleagues, and you say, “This is all we have, let’s do something with it. There are many different reasons why people are in this room. Let’s do something worthwhile and make it count. There are so many people in the world, so many different forms of expression. So who are we? What we do? Let’s make this as precious as we can!”

Maybe getting older has something to do with this attitude. Being aware of a much larger world, you’re aware of the scale, and the total inconsequence of your own being. But what you can say is: any single voice does matter. Any individual action is in fact a human voice that is there to witness the world. That, in itself, is worthwhile.

You have to keep both things in your head at once — the biggest possible picture and the most minute one, the “right now.” Then you have access to both objective and subjective narratives, you have perspective, so you don’t get lost.

Q: Have you ever had a dull moment in your entire career?

A: Whenever I’ve had a dull moment in performing, it becomes absolutely, exquisitely painful. When it’s good, you know, no matter how difficult the music is, time just flies by. When it’s not, time becomes excruciatingly slow — you’re Sisyphus pushing that boulder up the hill which never ends. People might still say “That was a good performance,” but you feel absolutely horrible, because you weren’t connecting with what the music is about. When I do connect, then I have the easiest job in the world.