As one of the most prominent faces of classical music of the last several decades, few would be surprised to hear of Yo-Yo Ma’s prodigious beginnings. His performances have graced the stages of presidential inaugurations, historical and humanitarian landmarks (like New York City’s 9/11 Memorial site), and practically every renowned performance hall in the Western world. Ma’s love of world music and his seemingly limitless virtuosity have made him an iconic ambassador, bridging genres, styles and eras of music from American, European, and Asian cultures. As a performer, he is as one-of-a-kind, resonating and enduring as the nearly 300-year-old cello through which he speaks to us.
Yo-Yo Ma was born in Paris to musical parents – his mother a singer and his father a violinist and professor of music. Ma was raised into a world of music and was afforded lessons in violin, viola, and, finally, cello before he had reached the age of five. If the adolescent Yo-Yo had had his way, he would have chosen the double bass as his primary instrument. Luckily for us, he was persuaded to stick with the cello, which he took up with otherworldly speed and skill. His parents moved from Paris to New York City when Ma was five years old – the same year he began performing for audiences. By age seven, Ma had performed for presidents Eisenhower and Kennedy. It was clear that young Yo-Yo was destined for greatness.
Ma enjoyed a first-rate education, enrolling in several esteemed K-12 schools in New York before attending college at Harvard University. As a student, he performed as a soloist with the Harvard Radcliffe Orchestra as well as with renowned orchestras from all over the world. This led to several critically acclaimed recordings in the 1980s – notably his unaccompanied Bach cello suites and his renditions of Bach and Beethoven sonatas. His first breakthrough into mainstream culture came with his appearance in John Williams’ soundtrack for Seven Years in Tibet. Numerous film score performances would follow, including Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, Master and Commander, and Memoirs of a Geisha.
In addition to his soundtrack and classical works, Ma has also showcased his musical dexterity in American bluegrass, Argentinian tango, Brazilian music, American jazz, and even an experimental collaboration with renowned improviser Bobby McFerrin. His dedication is documented by a prolific recording catalog of more than 75 albums, fifteen of which have won Grammy Awards. He continues to perform across the globe as a soloist, leader of his Silk Road Ensemble, and as a guest performer among the world’s most revered orchestras.
Despite Ma’s incessant touring and recording schedule, he has always made time to showcase his beliefs in music as an outlet for education and global unification. In 2006, UN Secretary General Kofi Annan named Ma as a Peace Ambassador. In 2009, President Obama appointed Ma to serve on the Committee on the Arts and Humanities. Other notable honors include the National Medal of Arts, the Presidential Medal of Freedom and the Polar Music Prize. In 2010, Ma began a consultancy with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and established the Citizen Musician Initiative, a program geared to spur a grassroots outreach of music education from performers at every skill level. Ma’s Silk Road Connect, based out of Queens, NY, has similarly served local children in music education. Finally, Ma is a founding member of the Committee of 100, an American-Chinese organization that was founded to address the concerns of Americans of Chinese heritage.
Although he is already renown for his boundless skill as a cellist, his multicultural music pedigree, and his ability to capture classical music’s most organic and charming elements for a modern audience, there is little doubt that Yo-Yo Ma will continue to grow and contribute to the evolution of both music and humanity in the years to come. Beyond his talent, he is a remarkably kind and generous humanitarian. His insatiable love of music will leave a lasting mark on the hearts and lives of the audiences and countless students he inspires around the world.