Yo-Yo Ma is undoubtedly one of the busiest and most well known of modern cellists, with hundreds of engagements entailing upwards of 150,000 miles of travel annually. His high profile is in part due to his close relationship with political administrations in Washington: he performed for Presidents Kennedy and Eisenhower in his childhood, Reagan in adult life and has been appointed to office and honoured by President Obama. He also has a readiness to interface with popular culture, through commercials (including for the Apple Corporation), appearances on television shows (such as children’s programme Sesame Street or drama The West Wing) and numerous performances on film including John Williams’s soundtrack for Seven Years in Tibet (2007). Ma has a genuinely eclectic repertory, ranging from all eras of Western art music to bluegrass, Chinese music and the tango compositions of Argentinian composer Astor Piazzolla. Add to this a friendly and unpretentious personality which has won him considerable affection and his immense popularity is no surprise. This can be gauged by an occurrence at a masterclass in Salt Lake City, when Ma agreed that his hitherto nameless 1733 Montagnana cello should henceforth carry a student’s suggestion of ‘Petunia’. Another of Ma’s instruments is the famous ‘Davidov’ Stradivarius formerly played by Jacqueline du Pré.
Ma comes from a musical family: his mother Marina Lu was a singer, whilst his father Hiao-Tsiun Ma was a violinist and a university professor. Like so many others he began instrumental lessons with his father, but a year later began studying in New York with János Scholz. He later joined the junior department of The Juilliard School, where his teacher was Leonard Rose, before attending first Columbia and then Harvard universities. An honorary doctorate was conferred upon him by Harvard in 1991. At a young age Ma met Pablo Casals (then in his nineties) at the Marlboro Festival, which he considers a profound influence on his musicianship. He also cites Leon Kirchner, Earl Kim, Patricia Zander and Luise Vosgerchian as important influences. The latter, he says, taught him (at Harvard) to ‘get at the core of a piece of music and find the mechanism to make something come to life’.
Often with regular duo partner Emanuel Ax, Ma has performed a vast quantity of the solo repertory for the cello. A recent enterprise is his Silk Road Ensemble (comprising musicians from along the silk trading routes, and exclusively recording for Sony Classical). Of particular note, and contributing to his iconic public image, are Ma’s Bach recordings. He recorded the Cello Suites in 1983 and again in 1994–1997, and featured the music in a television programme entitled Inspired by Bach.
On record Ma comes across as a fine interpreter. His thoughtfulness and enthusiastic personality are well conveyed in the unaccompanied Bach (the 1997 C minor Suite recording serving as an exemplar). This balances a commendable adjustment of tone to earlier repertoire, a sense of small-scale subtleties of phrasing and, where appropriate, a compelling mood of serenity and depth. Such profundity can also be found in Taverner’s The Protecting Veil (1998), whilst intense and anguished emotion is conveyed in Bloch’s Schelomo (2007). Indeed, an apparent compulsion to reach and communicate the heart of every work seems to characterise all of Ma’s performances. Thus, there is an appropriately energetic 1995 Beethoven Triple Concerto with Perlman (in particularly ebullient form in the finale!) and Barenboim, and a convincingly dark and brooding Shostakovich Cello Concerto No. 1 from 1984.
As might be expected from a Juilliard School graduate of his generation, Ma’s tone is very much of the mainstream international mould, relying heavily on vibrato and accentual power; these are not, however, used intrusively or anachronistically (as is evidenced by the Beethoven and Bach selected), indicating sensitivity to context. The discernment with which Ma applies his artistry makes him unquestionably one of the great interpreters of the current age.
© Naxos Rights International Ltd. — David Milsom (A–Z of String Players, Naxos 8.558081-84)