Ma, Yo-Yo

Ma, Yo-Yo
born Oct. 7, 1955, Paris, France

French-born U.S. cellist.

Born to Chinese parents in France, he made his cello debut at age five. He attended the Juilliard School and then Harvard University. Praised for his extraordinary technique and rich tone, Ma performed and recorded the standard cello repertoire and received a large number of commissions from contemporary composers. He is known for his many recordings with the pianist Emanuel Ax (b. 1949), for his collaborations with an unusual range of other musicians and artists, and for his energetic work on behalf of music programs for young people and a variety of international causes. In 1998 he founded the Silk Road Project, an arts organization that explores the historical and current exchange of ideas between Asian and Western cultures.

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▪ 1999

      One of the most publicized events in classical music in 1998 was the release of Chinese-American superstar Yo-Yo Ma's recording of the six suites for unaccompanied cello by Johann Sebastian Bach along with six related films created with artists in other media. Ma collaborated on the project with, among others, landscape architect Julie Moir Messervy, director François Girard, choreographer Mark Morris, director Atom Egoyan, Kabuki actor Tamasaburo Bando, and ice dancers Jayne Torvill and Christopher Dean. The films were partly documentaries of the collaborations between Ma and fellow artists and partly interpretations of Bach's music.

      Ma was born in Paris to Chinese parents on Oct. 7, 1955. A child prodigy, he gave his first public recital at the age of five and made his debut in New York City at Carnegie Hall at age nine. Ma studied at the Juilliard School in New York City under Leonard Rose and Janos Scholz before graduating from Harvard University with a degree in humanities. In 1991 his alma mater bestowed on him an honorary doctorate in music. Praised for his extraordinary technique and rich tone, Ma was celebrated for performances and recordings of the standard cello repertoire and for receiving an unusually large number of commissions from contemporary composers. A champion of chamber music, he also recorded unconventional repertoire with bluegrass musicians (Appalachia Waltz) and recorded the tangos of Astor Piazzolla (Soul of the Tango). Ma appeared regularly at major world festivals as both a performer and a teacher, received many Grammy awards, and was the sole recipient of the Avery Fisher Prize in 1978.

      At a time when classical recordings were accounting for a shrinking market share and crossover artists were dominating sales with releases often of dubious quality and sometimes with embarrassing results, Ma represented perhaps the best of the attempts to expand the reach of the classical tradition and audience. His willingness to search for collaborators in other musical and artistic traditions and to try new approaches was often a hit with critics and listeners. The Bach project clearly was the most ambitious of these attempts. Long revered as one of the supreme achievements of the Western musical tradition, the Bach suites remained a touchstone by which cellists demonstrated their mastery of the instrument. Ma first recorded the suites when he was in his 20s, but critics agreed that his second recording showed greater maturity and insight. The judgments on the films were mixed, however. Some, like the collaboration with Morris, Falling Down Stairs, which was paired with Suite No. 3, received generally positive notices, but others less so. Some people complained that the films were superfluous to the appreciation of the music, but no one could deny that the undertaking was vastly more creative and interesting than the usual crossover project.

ROBERT RAUCH

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▪ American cellist
born October 7, 1955, Paris, France
 
 French-born American cellist known for his extraordinary technique and rich tone. His frequent collaborations with musicians and artists from other genres and media reinvigorated classical music and expanded its audience.

      Born to Chinese parents, Ma was a child prodigy and at age five gave his first public recital. He later moved to New York City with his family and made his Carnegie Hall debut at age nine. He studied at the Juilliard School under Leonard Rose and János Scholz before graduating from Harvard University (1977) with a degree in humanities. He was the recipient of the Avery Fisher Prize in 1978, and in 1991 Harvard awarded him an honorary doctorate in music.

      Ma became celebrated for performances and recordings of the standard cello repertoire and for receiving an unusually large number of commissions from contemporary composers. He frequently performed as part of a trio with pianist Emanuel Ax and violinist Young-Uck Kim and as part of a quartet with Ax, Stern, and violinist Jaime Laredo. Ma and Ax received high acclaim for their recordings of the sonatas of Ludwig van Beethoven (Beethoven, Ludwig van) (1985) and Johannes Brahms (Brahms, Johannes) (1991). Of special interest to Ma were the six suites for unaccompanied cello by Johann Sebastian Bach (Bach, Johann Sebastian), challenging masterpieces that were some of the first music he learned to play as a young boy. He recorded the suites in 1983 and again in 1998. Accompanying the latter release was a series of six films that interpreted Bach's suites; Ma collaborated on the project with artists from such varied disciplines as choreography, landscape architecture, ice skating, film directing, and Kabuki theatre.

      In addition to his conventional repertoire, Ma also recorded with improvisational singer Bobby McFerrin on Hush (1992) and with bluegrass musicians on Appalachia Waltz (1996) and Appalachian Journey (2000). On Soul of the Tango (1997), he recorded the tangos of Astor Piazzolla (Piazzolla, Astor). He also played on Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000), the soundtrack recording for the movie of the same name, and in 2003 collaborated with Latin American musicians on Obrigado Brazil. In 1998 Ma founded the Silk Road Project, an arts organization that explored the cultural traditions along the Silk Road, an ancient trading route that linked China with the West. Soon after he established the Silk Road Ensemble, and the group's first recording, Silk Road Journeys: When Strangers Meet, was released in 2002; further Silk Road recordings were released in 2002, 2005, 2007, and 2008. A prolific musician, Ma recorded more than 50 albums between 1983 and 2008, and during this time he received 15 Grammy Awards.

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Universalium. 2010.

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