Yo-Yo Ma’s accomplishments as a musician and a cultural figure could fill a book. Born in 1955, the superstar cellist turned heads while he was still a child for his brilliant, lyrical playing. His talent would make him an icon.
He introduced new audiences to classical through countless TV appearances. He served as a peace ambassador for the United Nations. And he thrilled listeners across many genres with his remarkable musicianship.
"Music, ultimately, is one of the great ways that we as humans have for coding internal life,” Ma said in 2015. “It's glue that joins people together."
That spirit of connection led him through a legendary career. Ma is about to kick off a two-year tour with a concert at Red Rocks Amphitheatre that will air live on CPR Classical on Wednesday. Here’s a look at highlights from a musical life filled with high notes.
A Child Prodigy Who Played For Presidents
Just a few years after Ma began to study the cello, Leonard Bernstein was introducing Ma and his sister, Yeou-Cheng Ma, to an audience that included President John F. Kennedy and former president Dwight Eisenhower. Ma, who was just 7 years old, got the gig through a recommendation from legendary cellist Pablo Casals.
Recording Bach’s Immortal Cello Suites
Bach’s six suites for solo cello play a recurring role in Ma’s life story. As CPR Classical's David Rutherford explained recently, the suites are legendary but Ma has made them his own. He was just 4 years old when his father taught him the first measure to the first Bach suite.
He’s recorded them three times. First, as an ambitious young musician in his 20s. He revisited the suites for a second recording in his 40s. Now, in his early sixties, the third (and, he says, final) recording, “Six Evolutions” is set to be released on Aug. 17.
Playing Masterworks With Classical Superstars
From the late 1970s through the early 1990s, Ma’s recordings covered much of the standard cello repertoire. He performed in chamber music “dream teams” with the likes of violinist Isaac Stern, pianist Emmanuel Ax, and violinist Jamie Laredo.
He also recorded the great cello concertos with orchestras like the Berlin Philharmonic, and the London Symphony Orchestra. He won his first Grammy in 1984, and collected a total of 18 Grammys over the years.
Watch Ma play Johannes Brahms' Double Concerto with Stern:
A Friend To Young Music Lovers
Many of Ma’s most famous moments have taken place on a TV set. He turned in memorable visits to “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood” and “Sesame Street,” and helped to introduce children to the fun and beauty of music. Check out this segment from “Sesame Street,” in which Ma played a duet with a trio of noisy Muppets.
Breathing Life Into New Cello Music
And Ma’s explorations today include modern classical music. He’s worked with numerous living composers, including Esa-Pekka Salonen and Graham Fitkin, to debut new cello concertos. In 2017 he recorded a new cello concerto written for him by Osvaldo Golijov with the chamber orchestra The Knights.
An Eclectic Collaborator
By the late 1980s and early 1990s, however, Ma was collaborating with musicians outside the usual classical circles. He recorded Cole Porter’s music with jazz violinist Stéphane Grapelli, an album with jazz vocalist Bobby McFerrin, and eventually a few projects with mandolinist Chris Thile, and double bassist Edgar Meyer. That trio played with fiddler Stuart Duncan on the album “The Goat Rodeo Sessions.”
Ma has also dabbled in film music, including the score of “Immortal Beloved” from 1994, and in the John Williams scores for “Seven Years In Tibet” from 1997 and “Memoirs of a Geisha” from 2005.
A Nomad Cellist And The Silk Road Ensemble
Born in Paris to Chinese parents who moved to New York, Yo-Yo Ma has referred to himself as a kind of musical nomad. This might be most apparent through his time with The Silk Road Ensemble.
In 1998, Ma brought together the group of 22 virtuoso musicians from around the world. His vision was to find ways to work together, musically and culturally, at a time of division because of rapid globalization. The group continues to tour and make genre-blending recordings.
A Massive World Tour (That Starts in Colorado)
Ma’s upcoming tour, which kicks off at Red Rocks Park and Amphitheatre, is both huge and intimate. He’ll play solo recitals for thousands of listeners on six continents, performing Bach’s Cello Suites at venues around the world over the next few years. Will it be his last tour on such a grand scale? If so, he’s going out with a bang.
If you weren’t lucky enough to snag a ticket for the concert at Red Rocks, you can hear the entire concert live on CPR Classical and CPR.org starting at 7:30 p.m. Wednesday.