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Yo-Yo Ma (Cello)

Born: October 7, 1955 - Paris, France


The American cellist, Yo-Yo Ma, was born in Paris to Chinese parents and had a musical upbringing. His mother, Marina Lu, was a singer and his father, Hiao-Tsiun Ma, was a violinist and professor of music at Nanjing National Central University (predecessor of the present-day Nanjing University). The family moved to New York when Ma was 7n years old. At a young age, he began studying violin and piano and later viola, finally settling on the cello in 1960 at age 4. According to Ma, his first choice was the double bass due to its large size, but he compromised and took up cello instead. The child prodigy began performing before audiences at age 5 and performed for Presidents Dwight D. Eisenhower and John F. Kennedy when he was 7. At age 8, he appeared on American television with his sister, Yeou-Cheng Ma, in a concert conducted by Leonard Bernstein. In 1964, Isaac Stern introduced them on The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson, and they performed the Sonata of Sammartini. He attended Trinity School in New York but transferred to the Professional Children's School, from which he graduated at age 15. He appeared as a soloist with the Harvard Radcliffe Orchestra in a performance of the Tchaikovsky Rococo Variations.

Yo-Yo Ma studied at The Juilliard School at age 19 with Leonard Rose and attended Columbia University but dropped out. He later enrolled at Harvard College. Prior to entering Harvard, Ma played in the Marlboro Festival Orchestra under the direction of cellist and conductor Pablo Casals. Ma would ultimately spend four summers at the Marlboro Music Festival after meeting and falling in love with Mount Holyoke College sophomore and festival administrator Jill Hornor his first summer there in 1972. However, even before that time, Ma had steadily gained fame and had performed with many of the world's major orchestras. He has also played chamber music, often with the pianist Emanuel Ax, with whom he has a close friendship back from their days together at the Juilliard School of Music in New York. Ma received his bachelor's degree from Harvard in 1976. In 1991, he received an honorary doctorate from Harvard.

In 1997, Yo-Yo Ma was featured on John Williams' soundtrack to the Hollywood film Seven Years in Tibet. In 2000, he was heard on the soundtrack of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and, in 2003, on that of Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World. He collaborated with Williams again on the original score for the 2005 film Memoirs of a Geisha. Ma has also worked with Italian composer Ennio Morricone and has recorded Morricone's compositions of the Dollars Trilogy including The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, Once Upon a Time in America, The Mission, and The Untouchables. He also has over 90 albums, 18 of which are Grammy Award winners. Ma is a recipient of the International Center in New York's Award of Excellence.

Yo-Yo Ma was named Peace Ambassador by then-UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan in January 2006. He is a founding member of the influential Chinese-American Committee of 100, which addresses the concerns of Americans of Chinese heritage. On November 3, 2009, President Obama appointed Ma to serve on the President's Committee on the Arts and Humanities. His music was featured in the 2010 documentary Jews and Baseball: An American Love Story, narrated by Academy Award winner Dustin Hoffman. In 2010, Ma was named Judson and Joyce Green Creative Consultant of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. In partnership with the orchestra's music director, Riccardo Muti, he launched the Citizen Musician initiative. Yo-Yo Ma is represented by the independent artist management firm Opus 3 Artists.

Silk Road Ensemble

Yo-Yo Ma formed his own Silk Road Ensemble, following the famous trade route which for more than two thousand years has been used for trade, notably spices, all the way across Europe and Asia to China. His goal was that of bringing together musicians from diverse countries all of which are historically linked via the Silk Road. His records with them were on the Sony Classical label. He also founded the Silk Road Connect, involving children from middle schools in the United States, including New York City.

Playing Style

Yo-Yo Ma has been referred to as "omnivorous" by critics and possesses an eclectic repertoire. A sampling of his versatility in addition to numerous recordings of the standard classical repertoire would include his recordings of Baroque pieces using period instruments; American bluegrass music; traditional Chinese melodies, including the soundtrack to the film Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon; the tangos of Argentinian composer Ástor Piazzolla; Brazilian music, recording traditional songs and songs composed by Antonio Carlos Jobim and Pixinguinha; a collaboration with Bobby McFerrin (where Ma admitted to being terrified of the improvisation McFerrin elicited); as well as the music of modern minimalist Philip Glass in such works as the 2002 piece Naqoyqatsi.

Yo-Yo Ma is known for his smooth, rich tone as well as his virtuosity, including a cello recording of Niccolò Paganini's 24th Caprice for solo violin and Zoltán Kodály's solo sonata.


Yo-Yo Ma's primary performance instrument is the cello nicknamed "Petunia", built by Domenico Montagnana in 1733, and valued at US$2.5 million. It was named Petunia by a student who approached him after one of his classes in Salt Lake City asking if he had a nickname for his cello. He said, "No, but if I play for you, will you name it?" She chose Petunia and it stuck. Ma accidentally left this cello in a taxicab in New York City in 1999, but it was quickly returned undamaged. Another of his cellos, the Davidov Stradivarius, was previously owned by Jacqueline du Pré, who passed it to him upon her death. Though Du Pré previously voiced her frustration with the "unpredictability" of this cello, Ma attributed the comment to du Pré's impassioned style of playing, adding that the Stradivarius cello must be "coaxed" by the player. It was until recently set up in a Baroque manner, since Ma exclusively played Baroque music on it. He also owns a modern cello made by Peter and Wendela Moes of Peißenberg, Germany, and one of carbon fiber by the Luis and Clark company of Boston.

Notable Live Performances

On July 5, 1986, Yo-Yo Ma performed on the New York Philharmonic Orchestra's tribute to the 100th anniversary of the Statue of Liberty, which was televised live on ABC Television. The orchestra, conducted by Zubin Mehta, performed in Central Park.
Ma performed a duet with Condoleezza Rice at the presentation of the 2001 National Medal of Arts and National Humanities Medal Awards. Ma was the first performer on September 11, 2002, at the site of the World Trade Center, while the first of the names of the dead were read in remembrance on the first anniversary of the attack on the WTC. He played the Sarabande from J.S. Bach's Cello Suite No. 5 in C minor (BWV 1011). He performed a special arrangement of Sting's "Fragile" with Sting and the Mormon Tabernacle Choir during the opening ceremonies of the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City, Utah. He has also appeared as a Pennington Great Performers series artist with the Baton Rouge Symphony Orchestra in 2005.
He performed John Williams's "Air and Simple Gifts" at the inauguration ceremony for Barack Obama on January 20, 2009, along with Itzhak Perlman (violin), Gabriela Montero (piano), and Anthony McGill (clarinet). While the quartet did play live, the music, played simultaneously over speakers and on television, was a recording made two days prior due to concerns over the cold weather damaging the instruments. Ma was quotas saying, "A broken string was not an option. It was wicked cold."
On May 3, 2009, Ma performed the world premiere of Bruce Adolphe's Self Comes to Mind for solo cello and two percussionists with John Ferrari and Ayano Kataoka at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City. The work is based on a poetic description written for the composer of the evolution of brain into mind by neuroscientist Antonio Damasio and featured, at the premiere, a film of brain scans provided by Hanna Damasio and other images, coordinated with the music during the performance.
On August 29, 2009, Ma performed at the funeral mass for Senator Edward M. Kennedy. Pieces he performed included the Sarabande movement from J.S. Bach's Cello Suite No. 6 (BWV 1012) and César Franck's Panis Angelicus with Plácido Domingo.
On October 3, 2009, Ma appeared alongside Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper at the National Arts Centre gala in Ottawa. Harper, a fan of The Beatles, played the piano and sang a rendition of With A Little Help From My Friends while Ma accompanied him on his cello. On October 16, 2011, he performed at the memorial for Steve Jobs held in Stanford University's Memorial Church.
In 2011, Ma performed with American dancer Charles "Lil Buck" Riley in the USA and in China at the U.S.-China Forum on the Arts and Culture.
On April 18, 2013, Ma performed at an interfaith service to honor the victims of the Boston Marathon bombings, held at the Cathedral of the Holy Cross. He played the Sarabande from J.S. Bach's Cello Suite No. 5 in C minor (BWV 1011). Also, he and other musicians accompanied members of the Boston Children's Chorus in a hymn.
On September 12, 2017, Ma performed all six of J.S. Bach's cello suites at the Hollywood Bowl (Los Angeles). After the first three suites, there was a "ten-minute pause" (as the Bowl video screen described it). An estimated 17,000 in attendance also heard Ma perform an encore, a tribute to "cellist Pablo Casals, who as a 13-year-old in 1890 discovered an old copy of the J.S. Bach suites in a secondhand music store, bringing them to modern attention. Ma’s memorable last words were to any 13-year-olds in the audience: “Don’t throw anything away.”"

Media Appearances

Yo-Yo Ma has appeared in an episode of the animated children's television series Arthur, as well as on The West Wing (episode "Noël", in which he performed the Prelude to J.S. Bach's Cello Suite No.1 (BWV 1007) at a Congressional Christmas party), and Sesame Street. In The Simpsons episode Missionary: Impossible, Ma (voiced by Hank Azaria) runs after Homer Simpson along with many other frequent guests of PBS. Ma later appeared in the episode Puffless where he played a serenade and theme music. Ma appeared twice on Mister Rogers' Neighborhood and developed a friendship with creator and host Fred Rogers. Ma would later receive the inaugural Fred Rogers Legacy Award. He also starred in the visual accompaniment to his recordings of J.S. Bach's Six Suites for Unaccompanied Cello (BWV 1007-1012).

Ma was often invited to press events by Apple Inc. and Pixar CEO Steve Jobs and has performed on stage during event keynote presentations, as well as appearing in a commercial for the Macintosh computer. Ma's J.S. Bach recordings were used in a memorial video released by Apple on the first anniversary of Jobs's death. Ma was a guest on the "Not My Job" segment of Wait Wait... Don't Tell Me! on April 7, 2007, where he won for listener Thad Moore.

On October 27, 2008, Ma appeared as a guest and performer on The Colbert Report. He was also one of the show's guests on November 1, 2011, where he performed songs from crafting an album, "The Goat Rodeo Sessions" with fellow musicians Stuart Duncan, Edgar Meyer, and Chris Thile. Ma also performed several of J.S. Bach's cello suites for the 2012 film Bill W.. On October 5, 2015, he appeared on Colbert's new program The Late Show with Stephen Colbert, in support of ballerina Misty Copeland and prematurely celebrating his 60th birthday.

Name, Genealogy, Personal Life

According to research done by Professor Henry Louis Gates, Jr. for the PBS series Faces of America, a relative had hidden the Ma family genealogy in his home in China to save it from destruction during the Cultural Revolution. His paternal ancestry can be traced back eighteen generations to the year 1217. This genealogy had been compiled in the 18th century by an ancestor, tracing everyone with the surname Ma, through the paternal line, back to one common ancestor in the 3rd century BC. Ma's generation name, Yo, had been decided by his fourth great grand-uncle, Ma Ji Cang, in 1755.

Yo-Yo Ma is married to Jill Hornor, an arts consultant. They have two children, Nicholas and Emily. Although he personally considers it the "worst epithet he's ever faced", he was still "tagged" in 2001 as "Sexiest Classical Musician" by People. He has continued to receive such accolades over the years, including from AARP in 2012. However, he has also been praised as a man of unquestionable character. He has also been singled out for his humble spirit, self-effacing manner, and humanitarianism.


Ma's albums include recordings of cello concertos (including, among others, Dmitri Shostakovich, Johannes Brahms, Edward Elgar, and Haydn), sonatas for cello and piano, J.S. Bach's cello suites, and a variety of chamber music. He has also recorded in non-classical styles, notably in collaboration with Bobby McFerrin on their 1992 Sony album, "Hush".

Notable Awards and Recognitions

Grammy Award for Best Chamber Music Performance:
1986 J. Brahms: Cello and Piano Sonatas in E Minor Op. 38, and F Op. 99 (RCA 17022)
1987 L.v. Beethoven: Cello and Piano Sonata No. 4 in C & Variations (CBS 42121)
1992 J. Brahms: Piano Quartets Op. 25, Op. 26 (Sony 45846)
1993 J. Brahms: Sonatas for Cello & Piano (Sony 48191)
1996 J. Brahms/L.v. Beethoven/W.A. Mozart: Clarinet Trios (Sony 57499)

Grammy Award for Best Instrumental Soloist(s) Performance:
1990 Samuel Barber: Cello Concerto, Op. 22/Britten: Symphony for Cello and Orchestra, Op. 68 (CBS 44900)
1993 Prokofiev: Sinfonia Concertante/Tchaikovsky: Variations on a Rococo Theme (Sony 48382)
1995 The New York Album – Works of Albert, Béla Bartók & Bloch (Sony 57961)
1998 Yo-Yo Ma Premieres – Danielpour, Kirchner, Rouse (Sony Classical 66299)

Grammy Award for Best Instrumental Soloist Performance:
1985 J.S. Bach: The Unaccompanied Cello Suites (CBS 37867)

Grammy Award for Best Classical Contemporary Composition:
1995 The New York Album, Stephen Albert: Cello Concerto (Sony 57961)

Grammy Award for Best Classical Album:
1998 Yo-Yo Ma Premieres – Danielpour, Kirchner, Rouse (Sony Classical 66299)

Grammy Award for Best Classical Crossover Album:
1999 Soul of the Tango – The Music of Ástor Piazzolla (Sony Classical 63122)
2001 Appalachian Journey (Sony 66782)
2004 Obrigado Brazil (Sony 89935)
2009 Songs of Joy & Peace (SonyClassical B001BN1V8U)

Grammy Award for Best Folk Album:
2012 The Goat Rodeo Sessions w/ Stuart Duncan, Edgar Meyer & Chris Thile

Grammy Award for Best World Music Album:
2017 Sing Me Home – Yo-Yo Ma & The Silk Road Ensemble

1978: Avery Fisher Prize
2001: National Medal of Arts
2004: Latin Grammy for Best Instrumental Album at the 2004 Latin Grammy Awards for Obrigado Brazil (Sony 89935)
2005: Doctor of Musical Arts (D.M.A.) (honoris causa) at Princeton University
2006: Dan David Prize
2006: Léonie Sonning Music Prize
2007: Award of Distinction at the International Cello Festival
2011: Kennedy Center Honor
2011: Glenn Gould Prize
2011: Presidential Medal of Freedom awarded on February 15, 2011 (nominated November 17, 2010)
2012: Polar Music Prize
2012: Best Cross-Cultural Collaboration Award by Songlines magazine's 2012 annual Songlines Music Awards, for his work The Goat Rodeo Sessions with Stuart Duncan, Edgar Meyer and Chris Thile
2013: Vilcek Prize in Contemporary Music
2014: Midwest Young Artists Golden Baton Award
2014: Fred Rogers Legacy Award, inaugural recipient, given by the Fred Rogers Center for Early Learning and Children's Media at Saint Vincent College. Upon reception of the award, Ma stated, "This is perhaps the greatest honor I've ever received."
Commander of the Order of Arts and Letters (2016)

Source: Mostly Wikipedia Website (December 2017); Bits & pieces from other sources
Contributed by
Aryeh Oron (December 2017)

Yo-Yo-Ma: Short Biography | Recordings of Instrumental Works
Reviews of Instrumental Recordings: Bach’s Suites for Solo Cello:
Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4 | Part 5 | Part 6

Links to other Sites

Yo-Yo Ma (Official Website)
Yo-Yo Ma (Wikipedia)
Yo-Yo Ma - Biography (AMG)

Biographies of Performers: Main Page | A | B | C | D | E | F | G | H | I | J | K | L | M | N | O | P | Q | R | S | T | U | V | W | X | Y | Z
Explanation | Acronyms | Missing Biographies | The Sad Corner


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Last update: Monday, December 18, 2017 00:51