Yo-Yo Ma

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Yo-Yo Ma
Yo-Yo Ma 2013.jpg
Yo-Yo Ma in 2013
Background information
Born (1955-10-07) October 7, 1955 (age 64)
Paris, France
  • Cellist
  • educator
  • humanitarian [1]
Years active1961–present
Associated acts
Website yo-yoma.com
Yo-Yo Ma
Traditional Chinese 馬友友
Simplified Chinese 马友友

Yo-Yo Ma (born October 7, 1955) is a Chinese-American cellist. [2] Born in Paris, he spent his schooling years in New York City and was a child prodigy, performing from the age of four and a half. He graduated from the Juilliard School and Harvard University, and has performed as a soloist with orchestras around the world. He has recorded more than 90 albums and received 18 Grammy Awards.

Chinese Americans Ethnic group

Chinese Americans are Americans who are descendants of Chinese, particularly Han Chinese ancestry, which also includes American-born Chinese persons. Chinese Americans constitute one group of overseas Chinese and also a subgroup of East Asian Americans, which is a further subgroup of Asian Americans. Many Chinese Americans are immigrants along with their descendants from mainland China, Hong Kong, Macau, Taiwan, as well as from other regions that include large populations of the Chinese diaspora, especially Southeast Asia and some Western countries like Canada, the United Kingdom, Australia, New Zealand and France.

Paris Capital of France

Paris is the capital and most populous city of France, with an area of 105 square kilometres and an official estimated population of 2,140,526 residents as of 1 January 2019. Since the 17th century, Paris has been one of Europe's major centres of finance, diplomacy, commerce, fashion, science, and the arts. The City of Paris is the centre and seat of government of the Île-de-France, or Paris Region, which has an estimated official 2019 population of 12,213,364, or about 18 percent of the population of France. The Paris Region had a GDP of €709 billion in 2017. According to the Economist Intelligence Unit Worldwide Cost of Living Survey in 2018, Paris was the second most expensive city in the world, after Singapore, and ahead of Zürich, Hong Kong, Oslo and Geneva. Another source ranked Paris as most expensive, on a par with Singapore and Hong Kong, in 2018.

New York City Largest city in the United States

The City of New York, usually called either New York City (NYC) or simply New York (NY), is the most populous city in the United States. With an estimated 2018 population of 8,398,748 distributed over a land area of about 302.6 square miles (784 km2), New York is also the most densely populated major city in the United States. Located at the southern tip of the state of New York, the city is the center of the New York metropolitan area, the largest metropolitan area in the world by urban landmass and one of the world's most populous megacities, with an estimated 19,979,477 people in its 2018 Metropolitan Statistical Area and 22,679,948 residents in its Combined Statistical Area. A global power city, New York City has been described as the cultural, financial, and media capital of the world, and exerts a significant impact upon commerce, entertainment, research, technology, education, politics, tourism, art, fashion, and sports. The city's fast pace has inspired the term New York minute. Home to the headquarters of the United Nations, New York is an important center for international diplomacy.


In addition to recordings of the standard classical repertoire, he has recorded a wide variety of folk music such as American bluegrass music, traditional Chinese melodies, the tangos of Argentinian composer Ástor Piazzolla, and Brazilian music. He has collaborated with artists including jazz singer Bobby McFerrin, guitarist Carlos Santana, Sérgio Assad and his brother, Odair, and singer-songwriter and guitarist James Taylor. Ma's primary performance instrument is a Montagnana cello crafted in 1733 and valued at US$2.5 million.

Bluegrass music is a genre of American roots music that developed in the 1940s in the United States Appalachian region. The genre derives its name from the band Bill Monroe and the Blue Grass Boys. Bluegrass has roots in traditional English, Scottish and Irish ballads and dance tunes, and by traditional African-American blues and jazz. Bluegrass was further developed by musicians who played with Monroe, including 5-string banjo player Earl Scruggs and guitarist Lester Flatt. Monroe characterized the genre as: "Scottish bagpipes and ole-time fiddlin'. It's Methodist and Holiness and Baptist. It's blues and jazz, and it has a high lonesome sound."

Tango Argentinian partner dance

Tango is a popular partner dance and social dance that originated in the 1880s along the Río de la Plata, the natural border between Argentina and Uruguay. It was born in the impoverished port areas of these countries, where natives mixed with slave and European immigrant populations. The tango is the result of a combination of the German Waltz, Czech Polka, Polish Mazurka, and Bohemian Schottische with the Spanish-Cuban Habanera, African Candombe, and Argentinian Milonga. The tango was frequently practiced in the brothels and bars of ports, where business owners employed bands to entertain their patrons with music. The tango then spread to the rest of the world. Many variations of this dance currently exist around the world.

Bobby McFerrin American jazz vocalist and conductor

Robert Keith McFerrin Jr. is an American jazz vocalist. He is known for his vocal techniques, such as singing fluidly but with quick and considerable jumps in pitch—for example, sustaining a melody while also rapidly alternating with arpeggios and harmonies—as well as scat singing, polyphonic overtone singing, and improvisational vocal percussion. He is widely known for performing and recording regularly as an unaccompanied solo vocal artist. He has frequently collaborated with other artists from both the jazz and classical scenes.

He has been a United Nations Messenger of Peace since 2006. [3] He was awarded The Glenn Gould Prize in 1999, the National Medal of Arts in 2001, [4] Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2011, and Polar Music Prize in 2012. [5]

United Nations Messenger of Peace is a title bestowed by the United Nations to "distinguished individuals, carefully selected from the fields of art, music, literature and sports, who have agreed to help focus worldwide attention on the work of the United Nations."

Presidential Medal of Freedom Joint-highest civilian award of the United States, bestowed by the president

The Presidential Medal of Freedom is an award bestowed by the president of the United States. The Presidential Medal of Freedom and the Congressional Gold Medal are the highest civilian awards of the United States. The presidential medal seeks to recognize those people who have made "an especially meritorious contribution to the security or national interests of the United States, world peace, cultural or other significant public or private endeavors". The award is not limited to U.S. citizens and, while it is a civilian award, it can also be awarded to military personnel and worn on the uniform.

Polar Music Prize award

The Polar Music Prize is a Swedish international award founded in 1989 by Stig Anderson, best known as the manager of the Swedish band ABBA, with a donation to the Royal Swedish Academy of Music. The award is annually given to one contemporary musician and one classical musician. Exceptions were made in 2001, when it was awarded to three musicians, and 2003, when it was awarded only to one musician. Without any restrictions of nationality, the prize is to be "awarded for significant achievements in music and/or musical activity, or for achievements which are found to be of great potential importance for music or musical activity, and it shall be referable to all fields within or closely connected with music". The prize has been called the "Nobel Prize of Music" in Sweden.

Early life and education

Yo-Yo Ma was born in Paris on October 7, 1955, to Chinese parents and had a musical upbringing. His mother, Marina Lu  [ zh ], was a singer and his father, Hiao-Tsiun Ma  [ zh ], was a violinist and professor of music at Nanjing National Central University (predecessor of the present-day Nanjing University). His sister, Yeou-Cheng Ma, played the violin before obtaining a medical degree and becoming a pediatrician. [6] The family moved to New York when Ma was seven years old. [7] [8]

Nanjing University university in Nanjing, China

Nanjing University, known as Nanda, is a major public university, the oldest institution of higher learning in Nanjing, Jiangsu, and a member of the elite C9 League of Chinese universities.

From the earliest possible age, Ma played the violin, piano and later viola, but settled on cello in 1960 at age four. Ma jokes that 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 five and performed for presidents Dwight D. Eisenhower and John F. Kennedy when he was seven. [9] [10] At age eight, he appeared on American television with his sister [11] 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. [12] He appeared as a soloist with the Harvard Radcliffe Orchestra in a performance of the Tchaikovsky Rococo Variations .

Child prodigy person who, at an early age, develops one or more skills at a level far beyond the norm for their age

A child prodigy is defined in psychology research literature as a person under the age of ten who produces meaningful output in some domain to the level of an adult expert.

Dwight D. Eisenhower 34th president of the United States

Dwight David "Ike" Eisenhower was an American army general and statesman who served as the 34th president of the United States from 1953 to 1961. During World War II, he was a five-star general in the Army and served as Supreme Commander of the Allied Expeditionary Force in Europe. He was responsible for planning and supervising the invasion of North Africa in Operation Torch in 1942–43 and the successful Invasion of Normandy in 1944–45 from the Western Front.

John F. Kennedy 35th president of the United States

John Fitzgerald Kennedy, often referred to by initials JFK and Jack, was an American politician who served as the 35th president of the United States from January 1961 until his assassination in November 1963. Kennedy served at the height of the Cold War, and the majority of his work as president dealt with managing relations with the Soviet Union and Cuba. A Democrat, Kennedy represented Massachusetts in the U.S. House of Representatives and Senate prior to becoming president.

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 spent 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. [13]

The Juilliard School is a private performing arts conservatory in New York City. Established in 1905, the school trains about 850 undergraduate and graduate students in dance, drama, and music. It is widely regarded as one of the world's leading drama, music and dance schools, with some of the most prestigious arts programs.

Leonard Rose American musician

Leonard Joseph Rose was an American cellist and pedagogue.

Columbia University Private Ivy League research university in New York City

Columbia University is a private Ivy League research university in New York City. Established in 1754 near the Upper West Side region of Manhattan, Columbia is the oldest institution of higher education in New York and the fifth-oldest institution of higher learning in the United States. It is one of nine colonial colleges founded prior to the Declaration of Independence, seven of which belong to the Ivy League. It has been ranked by numerous major education publications as among the top ten universities in the world.

Even before that time, Ma had gained fame, and had performed with many of the world's major orchestras. He has also played chamber music, often with pianist Emanuel Ax, with whom he has a close friendship from their days together at the Juilliard School of Music. Ma received his bachelor's degree from Harvard in 1976. [14] In 1991, he received an honorary doctorate from Harvard. [15]


Ma performs at the White House for American President Ronald Reagan, Crown Princess Michiko and Crown Prince Akihito of Japan, and Nancy Reagan, October 1987 Yo-Yo Ma performs for President Reagan 1987.jpg
Ma performs at the White House for American President Ronald Reagan, Crown Princess Michiko and Crown Prince Akihito of Japan, and Nancy Reagan, October 1987

In 1997, he 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 , as well as 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.

In addition to his prolific musical career, Ma in 1999 collaborated with landscape architects to design a Bach inspired garden. This space known as the Music Garden interprets Bach's Suite No. 1 in G Major for unaccompanied cello - Bwv 1007, constructing each section in the garden to fit the dance movements within the suite. [16] Originally planned for Boston, Toronto enthusiastically embraced the plan and it was subsequently built in the Harbourfront (Toronto) neighbourhood. [17]

Ma was named Peace Ambassador by then-UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan in January 2006. [18] He is a founding member of the influential Chinese-American Committee of 100, which addresses the concerns of Americans of Chinese heritage. [19]

On November 3, 2009, President Obama appointed Ma to serve on the President's Committee on the Arts and Humanities. [20] His music was featured in the 2010 documentary Jews and Baseball: An American Love Story , narrated by Academy Award winner Dustin Hoffman. [21] [22] [23] In 2010, President Obama announced that he would be recognizing Ma with the Presidential Medal of Freedom; Ma was presented with the award at the ceremonies in February 2011. [24]

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. [25] Yo-Yo Ma is represented by the independent artist management firm Opus 3 Artists. [26] Also in 2010, he appeared on a solo album by guitarist Carlos Santana, Guitar Heaven : The Greatest Guitar Classics of All Time, playing alongside Santana and singer India Arie on a Beatles' classic, While My Guitar Gently Weeps .

In 2015, Ma performed alongside singer-songwriter and guitarist James Taylor for two separate tracks on Taylor's chart-topping record Before This World: You And I Again, in addition to the title track.

In 2019, Ma will be directing at the 2019 Youth Music Culture Guangdong.

Silk Road Ensemble

Ma formed his own Silk Road Ensemble, following the trade route which for more than 2,000 years had been used for trade 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. [27]

Playing style

Ma has been referred to as "omnivorous" by critics and possesses an eclectic repertoire. [28] 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 .

Ma is known for his smooth, rich tone as well as his virtuosity, [29] including a cello recording of Niccolò Paganini's 24th Caprice for solo violin and Zoltán Kodály's solo sonata.


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. [30] Yo-Yo Ma accidentally left this cello in a taxicab in New York City in 1999, but it was quickly returned undamaged. [31] That same year, when Petunia's neck was damaged during X-ray baggage inspection, he borrowed the Pawle Stradivarius cello from the Chimei Museum for a concert in Taiwan. The damage was repaired in time, but Ma played both Petunia and Pawle during the concert nonetheless. [32] [33] [34]

Another of Ma's 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, Yo-Yo Ma attributed the comment to du Pré's impassioned style of playing, adding that the Stradivarius cello must be "coaxed" by the player. [35] 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. [36]

Notable live performances

Ma with Condoleezza Rice after performing a duet at the presentation of the 2001 National Medal of Arts and National Humanities Medal Awards. Yoyoma rice.jpg
Ma with Condoleezza Rice after performing a duet at the presentation of the 2001 National Medal of Arts and National Humanities Medal Awards.

On July 5, 1986, Ma performed on the New York Philharmonic's tribute to the 100th anniversary of the Statue of Liberty, which was televised live on ABC Television. [37] 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 Bach's Cello Suite #5 in C Minor . [38] 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 quoted as saying, "A broken string was not an option. It was wicked cold." [39]

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.

Ma appearing at the World Economic Forum's annual meeting in 2008. Yo-Yo Ma - World Economic Forum Annual Meeting Davos 2008.jpg
Ma appearing at the World Economic Forum's annual meeting in 2008.

On August 29, 2009, Ma performed at the funeral mass for Senator Edward M. Kennedy. Pieces he performed included the Sarabande movement from Bach's Cello Suite No. 6 and Franck's Panis angelicus with Plácido Domingo. [40]

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. [41]

In 2011, Ma performed with American dancer Charles "Lil Buck" Riley in the United States and in China at the U.S.-China Forum on the Arts and Culture. [42]

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 Bach's Cello Suite No. 5 in C Minor. Also, he and other musicians accompanied members of the Boston Children's Chorus in a hymn. [43]

Ma performance at Paranal Observatory, home of the Very Large Telescope. Strings by Starlight.jpg
Ma performance at Paranal Observatory, home of the Very Large Telescope.

On September 12, 2017, Ma performed all six of 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 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."" [45]

On 1 May 2019, Ma performed at Paranal Observatory in the Atacama desert. Ma was motivated to visit the astronomical observatory and perform at this location by his interest in astronomy.

On June 20, 2019, Ma performed the BachComplete Cello Suites in pleine air at Jay Pritzker Pavilion in Chicago, Illinois. The free performance attracted what might have been his largest audience, with a pavilion capacity of 11,000, and many thousands more listening in from the surrounding Millennium Park.

Media appearances

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 Bach's Cello Suite No.1 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. He 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 Bach's Six Suites for Unaccompanied Cello .

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 Bach recordings were used in a memorial video released by Apple on the first anniversary of Jobs's death. [46]

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. [47]

On October 27, 2008, Ma appeared as a guest and performer on The Colbert Report . [48] 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. [49] Ma also performed several of 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.

In August 2018, Ma appeared on NPR's Tiny Desk Concerts. [50]

Personal life

Ma is married to Jill Hornor, an arts consultant. [51] They have two children, Nicholas and Emily. [8] [52] Although he personally considers it the "worst epithet he's ever faced", he was still "tagged" in 2001 as "Sexiest Classical Musician" by People . [53] He has continued to receive such accolades over the years, including from AARP in 2012. [54] He has also been praised as a man of unquestionable character and has been singled out for his humble spirit, self-effacing manner, and humanitarianism. [55]

According to research done by 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. [56] [57]


Ma's albums include recordings of cello concertos (including, among others, Shostakovich, Brahms, Elgar, and Haydn), sonatas for cello and piano, Bach's cello suites, and a variety of chamber music. He has also recorded in non-classical styles, notably in collaboration with Bobby McFerrin, Chris Botti, Carlos Santana and James Taylor. [58] [59]

Notable awards and recognitions

Grammy Award

Grammy Award for Best Chamber Music Performance:

Grammy Award for Best Instrumental Soloist(s) Performance:

Grammy Award for Best Instrumental Soloist Performance:

Grammy Award for Best Classical Contemporary Composition:

Grammy Award for Best Classical Album:

Grammy Award for Best Classical Crossover Album:

Grammy Award for Best Folk Album:

Grammy Award for Best World Music Album:


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