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Musician reviews: Yo-Yo Ma Print E-mail

Monday, 18 June 2012 00:00

Written by Kallie Szczepanski

Soothing or soaring, tremulous or triumphant, the music that pours from Yo Yo Ma's cello delights and transfixes his audience. The artist refuses to be pigeonholed into one era or style; he is a musical Midas, with each piece that he touches turning to pure gold.

Yo Yo Ma has been wowing audiences since his first public performance in 1960- when the little Paris-born cellist was five. Two years later, the Ma family moved to New York. In 1963, eight year-old Yo Yo Ma greeted the American public for the first time with a solo performance in a televised concert conducted by Leonard Bernstein.

Ma went on to study at the Julliard School of Music, Columbia University, and Harvard. He received his bachelor's degree from Harvard at 21, and then began his professional career as an electrifying soloist and multi-faceted chamber musician.

Since that time, Yo Yo Ma has won 15 Grammies in a variety of categories. "Eclectic" doesn't even begin to describe his repertoire: yes, he has recorded the classical standards by such composers as Vivaldi, Dvorak, Brahms, Rachmaninoff... and Bach, plenty of Bach. Ma's 1998 interpretation of Bach's Cello Suites makes even a die-hard Bach detractor like me reconsider. None of the usual mechanical, metronomic sawing that one hears on most recordings of Bach's cello works; Yo Yo Ma's exquisite phrasing and musicality lead listeners deep into the baroque grandeur of Bach as it is meant to be played.

However, Ma does so much more than the standard repertoire. He has collaborated with artists such as Sting and Bobby McFerrin. Two of his Latin music CDs- "Soul of the Tango- The Music of Astor Piazzolla" (1999) and "Obrigado Brazil" (2004)- have won Crossover Album Grammies, as has the bluegrass "Appalachian Journey" CD from 2001. In addition, it seems that any Hollywood movie about Asia is required to feature Yo Yo Ma on the soundtrack. The master cellist plays traditional-style Chinese music on the soundtrack to "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon," and performs John Williams' music for "Seven Years in Tibet" and "Memoirs of a Geisha."

Currently, Ma is deeply involved with the Silk Road Ensemble, a group that he formed to explore and celebrate the music of countries from Turkey and Armenia, across Central Asia, and on to China. It can be tricky to meld such different musical influences into a coherent whole, particularly when some of the musicians are trained in traditional, improvisational styles, and others are classically trained in western music. Nonetheless, Ma and his ensemble-mates manage the feat brilliantly, evoking long, silk-laden caravans wending their way from Istanbul to Beijing and back again.

Yo Yo Ma's important public appearances have included opening the first anniversary memorial at the World Trade Center site, and playing for the opening ceremonies of the Salt Lake City Winter Olympics in 2002. He was also named a United Nations Peace Ambassador by Secretary-General Kofi Annan in January of 2006.

No matter what the genre- baroque, classical, romantic, jazz, Latin, international, or bluegrass- Yo Yo Ma's flawless technical brilliance and incomparable musicality elevate pieces to a higher level. He is a joy to hear, and an inspiration to young musicians around the world.


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