There seem to be two fundamental drivers to this passion for connection and engagement. One is personal, the pleasure it gives him. The other is social, a deep concern about the direction of the society he lives in. Yet Ma is so fundamentally private and essentially optimistic, that he doesn’t talk about either of these motivations, beyond reiterating a basic maxim: “The more you put in, the more you get out.”
When Ma’s former teacher Leonard Rose was sick with leukemia, Rose asked Ma to look after one of his brilliant young students, Matt Haimovitz. Ma did, and for years the two would meet on the road for informal lessons.
Sunday night’s Kennedy Center Honors offered tributes to Meryl Streep, Neil Diamond, Barbara Cook, Sonny Rollins and Yo-Yo Ma.
“It was the two of us sitting on television sets and couches in hotel rooms,” Haimovitz remembers. The lessons, he says, “were more philosophical discussion” than traditional instruction on instrumental technique. Haimovitz calls Ma “immense.” And he says the fundamental thing about collaborating with Ma is that “he always makes whoever works with him look good.”
Rutter has seen the “the more in, the more out” philosophy in operation during innumerable performances.
“When he is playing Elgar, he is drawing from the audience,” she says. “It is his connection to the people who are listening that is feeding him as much as he is feeding them.”
Ma is careful never to articulate his larger concern about society as pessimism. Classical music may be in deep trouble, financially and culturally, as older audiences die off and younger people have a seemingly infinite number of entertainment options. But Ma doesn’t seem to worry about it. As one friend says, with him the glass isn’t half full, it’s full three times over.
“You pick up a newspaper now and it isn’t very encouraging,” he says. “I’m aware of that. I’m glad I have a job. I’m grateful every day that I have that opportunity to be wanted and needed someplace.” Despair, cynicism, pessimism accomplish nothing.
If anything, he is inclined to take on even larger, more intractable problems. Great music will survive. What people need now is even more fundamental than music. For Ma it is almost a spiritual question: How can human beings engage more deeply, get more out of the world and their experience of it? There is a literacy at stake deeper than the ability to understand and respond to music.
“I am less worried about ‘classical music’ than I am worried about general interpretive literacy,” he says. “Are we using ourselves maximally?”
He is, certainly. Effortlessly, inexhaustibly and productively, the consummate citizen musician.
See the rest of this year’s Kennedy Center Honorees:
• Meryl Streep | photos
• Neil Diamond | photos
• Sonny Rollins | photos
• Barbara Cook | photos