Yo-Yo Ma is among the finest cellists of his generation, and a musician of unusually broad appeal. His great success is no doubt due to an easygoing, friendly stage personality in addition to his fine, adventurous musicianship.
Indeed, Ma appears to have music in his blood: his mother was a singer in Hong Kong, his father a conductor, composer, and teacher. Although he had his first cello lessons at age four, memorizing two bars of Bach's cello suites every day, he had initially studied the violin, then the viola. When he was seven, the family moved to New York so that Ma could study with Janos Scholz. At the age of eight, Ma appeared on American television on "The American Pageant of the Arts," in a concert conducted by Leonard Bernstein. He joined the junior department of the Juilliard School as a pupil of Leonard Rose. However, he left Juilliard in 1971, questioning whether he would continue with his cello studies despite international recognition while still in his teens.
Ma eventually enrolled at Harvard, where teachers, including composers Leon Kirchner and Earl Kim, gave him confidence to continue. The most important turning point, though, was a trip to the Marlboro Festival, where he heard the great cellist Pablo Casals perform. Says Ma, "The commitment behind each note, the belief he had, was a wonderful example."
In 1978 Ma won the Avery Fisher Prize, establishing himself as one of a very few genuine superstars in classical music. Since then, he has appeared with nearly all of the world's great orchestras and conductors. He also is active in chamber music, often in a piano trio with Young Uck Kim and Emanuel Ax; Ma and Ax won a Grammy award for their recording of the Brahms cello sonatas. In 1982 Ma was invited to appear in the inaugural concert of the London Symphony Orchestra's new concert hall at the Barbican Centre in London, where he played in the presence of Queen Elizabeth II. He has won numerous Grammy awards, recording such diverse music as Brazilian bossa nova, Argentine tango, American roots and bluegrass, and the soundtrack for Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. In 1998 he founded the Silk Road Project, to explore the exchange of musical ideas that occurred along the trade route. His CDs of the early 2000s have touched on both traditional and crossover repertory, with two albums of Vivaldi's music recorded with keyboardist and conductor Ton Koopman emerging as successful examples of the former, and the Obrigado Brazil CD becoming another crossover best seller.
Playing a Montagnana cello and the "Davidov" Stradivari previously used by Jacqueline du Pré, Ma produces a relatively lean and focused, though warm, tone, with a tight, fast vibrato. His performances are a unique blend of rhapsodic and seemingly spontaneous music-making; at the same time, his playing is tempered by intellectually rigorous analysis and forethought. He places great importance on not repeating performances from the past, either those of other artists or his own.