Great Performers: Yo-Yo Ma
Yo-Yo Ma is one of those very rare artists, a true classical music superstar. And his name isn't just recognised by classical music aficionados; thanks to his insatiable musical curiosity, he has explored many other musical worlds too and conquered them all.Read more…
Born in 1955 in France to musical parents, he moved with his family to the United States when he was seven, and though he'd been playing since he was four, his musical education was American – he studied at Juilliard (with Leonard Rose) and at Harvard. But he'd encountered the legendary Pablo Casals while playing under his baton in the Marlboro Festival Orchestra and some of that great cellist's humanitarian as well as musical beliefs clearly rubbed off. Yo-Yo Ma would become as well known for his generosity of spirit as much as for his music-making, though in truth the two would be inextricably entwined.
As a young player – and his extraordinary talent was recognised early with a recording contract – he performed and recorded the core concerto repertoire. His musical tastes ranged from the Baroque to the brand-new (he has long been a champion of living composers) via the key mountain peaks of the cello repertoire – there's very little he hasn't recorded. But chamber music has, perhaps, played an even more meaningful role in his career. The pianist Emanuel Ax has been a regular musical partner since Harvard and the pair of them, joined by numerous magnificent string players, have given us a stream of wonderfully collegial, truly collaborative recordings – just listen to the sparkling finale of Brahms's First Piano Quartet with Isaac Stern, Jaime Laredo to experience chamber-music playing at its finest.
Ma's elegant, focused tone and impeccable intonation have won him a huge following and his explorations of Bach's cello suites (which he's returned to three times in the studio) have revealed a deepening of his interpretative art. Like the Bach, he has recorded the Beethoven Triple Concerto three times, and always in exalted company (the playlist contains the whole work but with a movement from each recording).
He has always chosen his musical partners with impeccable judgement: when he started exploring Baroque fare it was in the company of the Dutch conductor-harpsichordist Ton Koopman; when playing new music he'd often turn to the conductor David Zinman; and, when not joined by Ax, he makes a superb duo with the British pianist Kathryn Stott. For
movie music, it would of course be John Williams and Ennio Morricone that he'd seek out, and when playing music of the Silk Road or exploring the blue grass music of the US he'd surround himself by the best. And when you're as fine a musician as Yo-Yo Ma, and it's a question of first among equals, the best really is the best.