The 60-year-old cellist is on a magic cello ride, and still striving for perfection
A cellist walks on a beach and picks up a bottle. A genie pops out and says, “I give you two wishes.”
The cellist says: “Wow, I’d like to have world peace.”
The genie thinks for a second and says,
“That’s too hard! What’s your second wish?”
The cellist says, “Well, I’m turning 60 and I want to play in tune.”
The genie thinks for a second and says, “What was your first wish again?”
Musicians, take heart. That joke was told by the cellist Yo-Yo Ma during an interview ahead of his 60th birthday on Oct. 7. After 55 years of playing, yes, even Yo-Yo Ma needs to practice.
“What all string players have in common is that if we don’t play for awhile, we actually start from ground zero,” Ma says. Ma was four when he started the cello.
At seven, he was performing with his big sister for an audience that included two US presidents. Now nearing his milestone birthday, he’s ever youthful, always learning, asking questions, constantly building bridges.
And striving for perfection.
Despite all his achievements—more than 100 CDs, 18 Grammy Awards, and other honors, including the Presidential Medal of Freedom and the National Medal of Arts—he’s going full tilt toward more accomplishments.
In the weeks before his birthday, Ma’s agenda was packed. At Tanglewood, his scheduled performances included all three Brahms trios with Emanuel Ax and Leonidas Kavakos and the six Beethoven cello sonatas with Ax. That was followed by a six-country European tour with Andris Nelsons and the Boston Symphony, featuring Strauss’ Don Quixote in advance of next year’s 400th anniversary of Cervantes’ death. At the London Proms, he was scheduled to play all six Bach Cello Suites in one night. In September, his new album, Songs from the Arc of Life (Sony Masterworks), with long-time accompanist Kathryn Stott on piano, was to be released, as was a documentary focusing on musicians in his Silk Road Ensemble—a collective of musicians, composers, visual artists, and more that explores Eurasian culture.
The journey began in 1955 in Paris, where Ma was born to immigrant Chinese musician parents. His sister, Yeou-Cheng Ma—a violinist, pianist, medical doctor, and children’s orchestra administrator—remembers that their father started Yo-Yo on the violin at age two and a half, then piano, but he didn’t like them.
“He didn’t want to do something that I already did because he could see that I already knew how to play,” Yeou-Cheng Ma says. “He was a very smart kid, very intuitive . . . and a charmer, even at a young age.”
So he didn’t play any instrument for the next year and a half, during which time the family moved to New York. One day, he saw a newsreel about a New Orleans jazz band and noticed the double bass. “He was thrilled,” his sister recalls. “He said, ‘That one! The big one! That’s what I want!’” But since he was so little, he was given the second-biggest one, a cello. Their father, Hiao-Tsiun Ma, taught him the Bach Suites, measure by measure. At age seven, Yo-Yo and Yeou-Cheng performed Breval’s Concertino No. 3 at a fundraiser for the Kennedy Center. The audience included President John F. Kennedy and former President Dwight Eisenhower.
Ma went on the study with Leonard Rose at the Juilliard School, but dropped out and entered Harvard at age 16, majoring in the history of science. Since then, he has been on a magic cello ride around the world, figuratively and literally. As he approaches the start of his seventh decade, Ma says he is swimming and walking, watching what he eats, and assessing his goals—“What’s worth really, really trying hard for?”