Ten-time Grammy Award winning cellist Yo Yo Ma possessed astounding technical brilliance and an awe-inspiring artistic sensibility. He virtually defined the standard for future cellists, and during his prolific career recorded more than 45 albums, between 1983 and 1998. Ma never hesitated to explore fresh musical terrain and the music of other cultures, and often explored the musical forms outside of the Western classical tradition. Ma immersed himself in projects as diverse as native Chinese music and it's distinctive instruments, the music of the Kalahari bush people in Africa, and tango music. Ma became one of the most sought-after cellists of his time, appearing with eminent conductors and orchestras throughout the world. He also gained a deserved reputation as an ambassador for classical music and its vital role in society.
Ma was born in Paris in 1955 to Chinese parents, and he began his cello studies with his father at the age of four. Ma gave his first public recital at the age of five. He eventually studied with Janos Scholz and then, at the age of seven, Ma became a pupil of Leonard Rose at the Juilliard School of Music in 1962. By the time Ma was nineteen, he was compared with masters such as Rostropovich and Casals. He graduated from Harvard University in 1977, and in 1978, at the age of 23, Ma received the prestigious Avery Fisher Prize. Ma gained international recognition as soloist and chamber musician. He performed as a soloist with symphony orchestras around the world, including those of Boston, San Francisco, Philadelphia, Toronto, and Minnesota, as well as the New York, Israel, and Los Angeles Philharmonics.
Ma earned his first Grammy award in 1984 for Best Classical Performancenstrumental for Bach: The Unaccompanied Cello Suites. A year later he garnered two more Grammy Awards, one for Elgar: Cello Concerto, Op. 85, and one for Best Chamber Music Performance for Brahms: Cello and Piano Sonatas in E Minor, with Emanuel Ax. Ma's long-standing partnership with pianist Ax resulted in the lion's share of his recordings as well as numerous recitals. Their partnership became one of the music world's most successful and prolific collaborations. They recorded the complete cello sonatas of Beethoven and Brahms in addition to works by Britten, Chopin, Prokofiev, Rachmaninov, Strauss, and others. In 1986 Ma won two more Grammys, along with Ax and producer James Mallinson, in the Best Classical Album and Best Chamber Music Performance categories for Beethoven: Cello and Piano Son. No. 4. Two years later in 1988 Ma won a Best Classical Instrumental Performance Grammy for Brahms: Double Concerto in A Minor, a year later he won another in the same category for Barber: Cello Concerto, Op. 22. and a Grammy for Best Chamber Music Performance for Shostakovich: Trio No. 2 for Violin, Cello & Piano with Ax and violinist Isaac Stern.
In 1991 the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) hyperinstrument team designed a special hypercello for Ma, and Tod Machover composed a special piece titled "Begin Again Again" for Ma to be performed on this new instrument. The hypercello permitted Ma to control an extensive array of sounds through performance nuance. Ma also received an honorary doctorate from Harvard in 1991. A Grammy Award for Best Classical Instrumental Performance was awarded to Ma for his work on Tchaikovsky: Variations on a Rococo Theme in 1991, in addition to a Grammy for Best Chamber Music Performance for Brahms: Piano Quartets the same year. Ma continued to win Grammy awards in 1992, 1993, 1994, 1995, and 1997. During the 1995-1996 season, Ma and Ax celebrated the 20th anniversary of their partnership with a recital tour culminating at Carnegie Hall, as well as aspecial concert at Lincoln Center's Alice Tully Hall for an episode of PBS's Live from Lincoln Center.
Ma balanced his solo performances with orchestras around the world with his recital and chamber music activities. He drew inspirations from a diverse and far-reaching circle of collaborators, working with musicians such as Daniel Barenboim, Pamela Frank, Emanuel Ax, Stephane Grappelli, Jeffrey Kahane, Young Uck Kim, Jaime Laredo, Bobby McFerrin, Edgar Meyer, Mark O'Connor, Peter Serkin, Isaac Stern, Richard Stoltzman, and Kathryn Stott. Each collaboration was generated by interaction between the musicians and often resulted in pieces that extended far beyond the boundaries of classical music or of any particular music classification. Ma joined Ax, Stern, and Laredo for performances and recordings of the piano quartet repertoire of Beethoven, Brahms, Dvorak, Faurve, Mozart, and Schumman.
Ma released Hush with vocalist Bobby McFerrin in 1992, followed by the soundtrack to the Gary Oldman film, Immortal Beloved, both of which were certified gold by the Recording Industry Association of America. In 1995 Ma presented the first in a series of films of Bach's Six Cello Suites, exploring the relationship between Bach's music and other artistic disciplines. The premier film, presented at the Edinburgh Festival in Scotland, featured the original choreography of Mark Morris set to the Third Cello Suite. Subsequent multimedia presentations/films by Ma, released throughout the late 1990s, incorporate the work of Kabuki artist Tamasaburo Bando, Italian architect Piranesi, Boston-based garden designer Julie Moir Messervy, Olympic ice-dancing champions Jane Torvill and Christopher Dean, and Canadian film director Atom Egoyan. In 1996 Ma released Peter Lieberson's chamber work King Gesar, a compilation of concertos by Kirchner, Rouse, and Danielpour with David Zinman and the Philadelphia Orchestra. In 1996 Ma also released Appalachia Waltz, an album of original music recorded in Nashville, Tennessee with fiddle player Mark O'Connor and bassist Edgar Meyer. In 1997 Ma recorded new material by Andre Previn, set to words by author Toni Morrison, featuring soprano Sylvia McNair and Previn as pianist.
American contemporary composers have been featured prominently in Ma's repertoire. Ma premiered works by William Bolcom, John Corigliano, John Harbison, Ezra Laderman, Peter Lieberson, Christopher Rouse, Bright Sheng, and John Williams, among others. Ma devoted time to working with young musicians in programs at Interlochen, Michigan, and other music camps. He often included educational outreach programs in his touring schedule, through master classes and informal interaction with student audiences.
In 1997 Ma recorded the soundtrack of Liberty!, a PBS documentary series about the American Revolution. Ma performed the music of the late Argentinean composer Astor Piazzolla on the release Soul of the Tango in 1997, and performed for the music video for director Sally Potter's feature film, The Tango Lesson, in which Ma plays Piazzolla's "Libertango". On Soul of the Tango, Ma played with Argentinean tangueras, which included a rock "duet" with Piazzollachieved by recording over one of the master bandoneonist's sort of accordioninal recordings. Ma steeped himself in Piazzolla's music and background by studying a tape of Rostropovich rehearsing "Le Grand Tango" for Piazzolla, and by traveling to Buenos Aires to tour tango clubs. Ma told Billboard's Bradley Bambarger, "The whole experience of researching and recording [Soul of the Tango] was a thrill. Like a lot of people, I'm so irresistibly drawn to Piazzolla's music. It's very sophisticated, yet it's also very primal. And you can say that about Beethoven, Stravinskyll the good stuff feeds the mind, the body, and the soul."
Bach: The Unaccompanied Cello Suites, Sony, 1984.
Elgar: Cello Concerto, Op. 85, Sony, 1985.
Brahms: Cello & Piano Sonatas in E Minor and F Major, Sony, 1985.
Beethoven: Complete Sonatas for Piano and Cello, Sony, 1987.
Boccherini: Cello Concerto, Sony, 1987.
Bolling: Suite for Cello and Jazz Trio, Sony, 1987.
Japanese Melodies, Sony, 1987.
Schumann: Cello Concerto, Sony, 1988.
Dvorak: Great Cello Concertos, Sony, 1989.
Portrait of Yo Yo Ma, Sony, 1989.
Shostakovich: Trio No. 2 for Violin, Cello & Piano, Sony, 1989.
Saint-Saens: Concertos, Sony, 1991.
Tchaikovsky: Variations on a Rococo Theme, Sony, 1991.
Faure: Piano Quartets Nos. 1 & 2, Sony, 1993.
Chopin: Polonaise Brillante, Sony, 1994.
Appalachia Waltz, Sony, 1996.
Goldenthal: Fire Water Paper Vietnam Oratorio, Sony, 1996.
Lieberson: King Gesar, Sony, 1996.
From Ordinary Things (with Andre Previn), Sony, 1997.
Liberty, Sony, 1997.
Seven Years in Tibet, Soundtrack, Sony, 1997.
Soul of the Tango: The Music of Astor Piazzolla, Sony, 1997.
Music for Strings & Piano Left, Sony, 1998.
Tavener: The Protecting Veil, Wake Up...and Die, Sony, 1998.
Billboard, December 6, 1997.
Boston Symphony Orchestra website: http://www.bso.org, (November 4, 1998).
MIT website: , (November 3, 1998).
Music Boulevard website: htt://www.musicblvd.com, (October 30, 1998).
Sony Music website: http://www.sonyclassical.com, (November 5, 1998).
Videoflicks website: , (October 28, 1998).
B. Kimberly Taylor
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