A NEW BOXED SET REVEALS THE ARCHAEOLOGY -- AND ANTHROPOLOGY -- OF THE WORLD’S PREMIER CELLIST.WHEN CONTEMPLATING YO-YO MA, IT’S WORTH STOPPING FOR A MOMENT TO ABSORB THE FACT THAT FOR NEARLY HALF A CENTURY, HE’S BEEN CONSIDERED ONE OF THE MOST IMPORTANT CLASSICAL MUSICIANS IN THE WORLD, AND HE’S ONLY 54.
Once a child prodigy who at age seven performed for the Kennedys, Ma has gone on to receive 15 Grammy awards and record over 90 albums.
Along the way, he has literally set the tone for some of the most significant moments in recent U.S. history, namely as the first performer to accompany the 2002 reading of the names of the victims of the World Trade Center attack and by performing at the inauguration of President Barack Obama in January of this year.
(Yo, by the way, translates -- twice -- as “friendship,” and Ma jokes that after his parents named his older sister, also an accomplished musician, Yeou-Cheng Ma, they got lazy and simply went with two Yos.)
Early in his career, he was lauded for his performances and renditions of Johann Sebastian Bach’s cello suites, Johannes Brahms’s cello compositions, and other classical, well, classics. But it’s his crossover appeal via contemporary collaborations and ventures into pop culture that has led to his accessibility and boosted his longevity.
He has appeared on Sesame Street and Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, been animated on The Simpsons and Arthur, and done a cameo on The West Wing. He’s contributed to the soundtracks of numerous films, including those for Seven Years in Tibet and Memoirs of a Geisha. And that haunting accompaniment to the lovelorn warriors and their encounters amidst the treetops in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon? All Ma. He most recently put his work on the site Indaba Music to let fans interact with it, and there are also more than 2,000 YouTube selections featuring him to ponder (his Internet presence only adds to his accessibility). And yes, he also has a Facebook page.
Last month (the month of his birthday), his recording label, Sony, put all his work together in a 91-CD boxed set. The collection, “30 Years Outside the Box,” celebrates Ma’s three decades with Sony and features two CDs of previously unreleased material, including the inauguration theme for President Obama, “Air & Simple Gifts.”
“I see Tiger Woods as the Yo-Yo Ma of golf,” says conductor David Zinman, giving an analogy that places Ma in the context of other well-known all-time greats. Staying with sports analogies, Michael Jordan would be the Yo-Yo Ma of basketball, Roger Federer the Yo-Yo Ma of tennis, and so on.
Onstage, Ma is athletic in his undulations. He sits on the edge of his seat, his arms reaching around to caress his cello, the fingers of his left hand seemingly everywhere on the strings at once. (He wears his wedding ring on the right hand in order to avoid contact between it and the cello.) His bow hand defies geometry while his head bobs and his foot taps. As he sways from side to side, his mouth alternates between an intense frown and a half-agape snarl that shows his front teeth. His eyes open, close, and flutter, and at times, he comes fully out of his chair as the music itself defies description.