Yo-Yo Ma:
Haute Culture's First String

Cellist and haute culture's ambassador to the masses talks about his name, his cellos and his love of grocery shopping.

by H Y Nahm



Yo-Yo Ma Yo-Yo Ma:
Haute Culture's First String

alling Yo-Yo Ma the world's greatest living cellist is like calling Monica Lewinsky Bill Clinton's favorite intern. Some dimensions don't reduce down to adjectives. But if you were an alien tasked to bring home earth's most elegant male, Yo-Yo Ma would head up your short list. And if you were a promoter trying to come up with a class note for a mass media spectacle like the Olympics or the Oscars Yo-Yo Ma would be your man.


     Ma's status transcends his 15 Grammies, including the recent Latin Grammies, and over 50 albums during a professional career that began at age five. He isn't so much a musical icon or even a cultural icon as the icon of culture itself. It may have something to do with the rapturous way he bows his 300-year-old Montagnana cello, as though channeling the spirits of Bach, Brahms or Beethoven. Or the fact that he has high society feeding ravenously out of his long-fingered hands. Or the infectious delight with which he feeds it cultural confections that meld Bach cello suites with Kabuki, ice-dancing or garden design. Or his ability to move, within the space of a single year, among albums featuring Appalachian fiddling, Tango and Baroque.

     Most recently, Ma has collaborated with Ennio Morricone on a recording of Morricone's themes for classic movies like Once Upon a Time in America, The Good, The Bad and The Ugly and The Untouchables

     The project is an offshoot of one that put Ma's evocative prowess on display for many Asian Americans — his collaboration with composer Tan Dun on the haunting score for Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. Ma's most ambitious Asian-themed undertaking is his ongoing Silk Road Project which seeks to recreate musically the cultural movements along the old trading route between Europe and Asia.

     It doesn't hurt either that at 49 Yo-Yo Ma has the looks and the energy of a man half his age. And is it possible that, despite all his success, he still wears what looks like the same oversized glasses he wore twenty years ago?

     The worst epithet he's ever faced? Being tagged “Sexiest Classicial Musician” by People.

     Yo-Yo Ma was born in 1955 in Paris to a singer mother and a musicologist father who set about with great determination to create a cello prodigy. At age six Yo-Yo showed enough promise to raise the eyebrows of violinist Isaac Stern. The following year the Ma family relocated to New York. At age nine Yo-Yo was enrolled in the Julliard School and studied under cellist Leonard Rose, a close friend of Stern's.

     For college Ma chose to receive a broad liberal arts education at Harvard over a music school. He graduated in 1976. A year later he married Jill Hornor, a violinist he had met during a performance at Mt Holyoke when he was 16. She was two years older. By the time he won the Avery Fisher Prize in 1978 Ma was a dozen years into his career as an internationally acclaimed cellist. He continues to perform regularly to packed houses around the world and is one of the world's leading classical recording artists. The Mas live in Cambridge, Massachusetts. They have two children: Nicolas, 21, and Emily, 19.

GS: You have been described as cutting right to the essence of every style of music you undertake. How heavily do you rely on your intellectual/analytical powers to help formulate interpretations?
JSL: Without a fabulous liberal arts education I wouldn't be able to work in so many different musical styles. That education gave me the tools to get to the inside of the specific voices of individual composers or cultural eras. PAGE 2

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“That education gave me the tools to get to the inside of the specific voices of individual composers or cultural eras.”


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