Who Is Yo-Yo Ma?
Yo-Yo Ma is a cellist and songwriter of Chinese descent. The child prodigy attended the Juilliard School and continued to excel throughout his adult life, producing more than 75 albums and winning 18 Grammy Awards. The acclaimed musician also served as artistic director of the Silk Road Project, an organization dedicated to promoting the various traditions along the ancient Silk Road trade route. In 2001, Ma was awarded the National Medal of Arts. In 2010, he was named a recipient of the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
Born on October 7, 1955, in Paris, France, Yo-Yo Ma is a classically trained cellist and songwriter of Chinese descent who was brought up playing pieces created by the great masters. Ma's mother was a singer and his father was a composer and teacher of music.
In the beginning, it was his father who would train both Ma and his older sister, Yeou-Cheng, in the classics. His sister was taught the violin and piano, often waking up at 4 or 5 a.m. to practice.
By the age of three, Ma was beginning to receive the same treatment. Having begun violin lessons when he was a toddler, Ma began playing the cello when he was just 4 years old. By age 5, he had reportedly memorized three of Johann Sebastian Bach's solo suites. Despite the great pressure both he and his sister felt from their parents to be the best, Ma attributes his early success to his father's teaching style and rigor.
When he was 7, Ma moved with his family to New York. At a young age, Ma was already one of the most famous classical musicians in the world. The child prodigy went on to attend the Juilliard School in New York City, but yearned to experience life beyond music. Instead of attending a conservatory like many of his peers, he decided to enroll at Harvard University at age 16. Determined to experience college life, Ma limited his performances at Harvard and took courses in everything from anthropology to German literature. He graduated in 1976 with a liberal arts degree.
After graduating from Harvard, Ma was ready to shift his career into overdrive. But instead, it came to a halt when he was forced to undergo a risky back surgery for a severe case of scoliosis.
He wore a body cast for six months and was not allowed to play at all during his recovery. Despite the risks of his surgery, the operation ended up being a success. From then on, he was in high demand, sometimes booking concerts years in advance.
Experimentation and innovation have become the hallmarks of Ma's career. His relentless pursuit of new challenges has brought classical music to a much larger audience than ever before. In fact, while he is a classical musician, he is known for his versatility and wide-ranging interests in different musical genres. He's delved into Baroque pieces, American bluegrass, as well as traditional Chinese music. While the results may be open to question, his passion is not.
Over his decades-long career, Ma has produced more than 75 albums. Among his earlier albums are Great Cello Concertos (1989), Brahms: Sonatas for Cello & Piano (1992), Made in America (1993) and Soul of the Tango: The Music of Astor Piazzolla (1997). Later projects include Simply Baroque II — Bach & Boccherini (2000), Classic Yo-Yo (2001), Obrigado Brazil (2003) and The Goat Rodeo Sessions (2011).
Ma has collaborated with musical talents like Bobby McFerrin, Mark O'Connor, Edgar Meyer, Stuart Duncan and the like. He has been a Sony recording artist for three decades, and is considered one of Billboard's best classical sellers.
A testament to his musical talent and creativity, Ma has won 18 Grammy Awards.
Ma plays a Venetian 17th century Montagnana cello and the Davidoff Stradivarius.
Other Projects and Honors
In 1998, Ma founded the Silk Road Project as a means to educate and study the culture and art that thrived on the Silk Road. The organization's vision, according to its website, is to "connect the world's neighborhoods by bringing together artists and audiences around the globe." Since founding the Silk Road Project, Ma has served as its artistic director.
In 2000, Ma was given the opportunity to expand his audience beyond his wildest dreams: Film director Ang Lee asked him to play on the sound track for the film Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, which went on to become an astounding success, winning four Academy Awards in 2011—for best foreign-language film, art direction, cinematography and, most importantly for Ma, best original score.
But Ma has also found time to perform in front of the cameras on the small screen. He's appeared on the West Wing, Sesame Street, Mister Rogers' Neighborhood, and even on The Simpsons. More recently, he was on PBS' Faces of America with host Professor Henry Louis Gates Jr., in which he learned about his ancestry.
Despite how some movies may represent it, classical music has also always been known as a source of solace during times of tragedy, and when the United States needed it most, Yo-Yo Ma delivered. A year after the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on the nation, Ma was asked to play at the ceremonies marking the first anniversary of the tragic event.
In 2001, Ma was awarded the National Medal of Arts. In 2010, he was named a recipient of the Presidential Medal of Freedom and is currently serving as a UN Messenger of Peace.
Today, Yo-Yo Ma is in demand as never before. His classical recitals and experimental performances sell out regularly, and his willingness to charge ahead into the unknown and take chances has opened a door for a new generation of musicians.
Ma has been married to longtime partner Jill Horner since 1978. The couple has a son and daughter. The Ma family lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
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