Yo-Yo Ma: Cellist in chief

By Anne Midgette
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, March 14, 2010

In 1961, Pablo Casals played for John F. Kennedy at the White House. The concert could be seen as a symbol of the importance of the arts to the Kennedy administration, or as a gesture of honor to a great cellist.

But there's no question, when the concert is re-created next year as part of the Kennedy Center's tribute to the 50th anniversary of Kennedy's inauguration, about who will represent Casals. When there's a commemorative event that calls for classical music, Yo-Yo Ma is almost sure to be the person playing it.

"My involvement in the political arena is to make sure there's a place for culture," Ma said in a recent interview over breakfast near his home in Cambridge, Mass. And one of music's accepted roles is a commemorative one. "Weddings, bar mitzvahs, funerals, an inauguration," Ma says, "those are the moments when it serves a moment." And Ma is happy to make music wherever it's needed. After all, it helps get the message across.

In every generation, a few musicians reach a level of fame that takes them into an orbit beyond their art. They become iconic, like Pavarotti; they become spokesmen, like Bono; they come, at the very least, to represent their field to a wider public.

Ma, 54, has certainly reached this level. He's one of the most recognizable classical musicians on the planet. Extroverted and smart, he's a natural spokesman for the arts. It's almost a matter of course that he represents classical music on the President's Committee on the Arts and the Humanities and is a U.N. peace ambassador.

And Ma is no stranger to music in the White House. He has played for nearly every administration during his lifetime: for Obama's inauguration, for George W. Bush, for Clinton, for Reagan -- even for the fictional president in "The West Wing." When he was 7, he played for Kennedy.

Many artists at similar levels of iconic fame have stagnated creatively: Pavarotti's performances at his fundraising concerts for children affected by war, for example, were far below the singer's best work. What's distinctive about Ma is that he's clearly continuing to develop as an artist, as if all his quasi-political activity is part of a larger continuum.

In the fall, Sony Music released a commemorative box set of Ma's life's work: 90 CDs, from a 1979 stint accompanying tenor Robert White in Beethoven's English folk song arrangements to a live Chicago Symphony performance in 2008 of John Williams's suite from the film "Memoirs of a Geisha." It's an impressive range (at an impressive price -- the set originally retailed for $800, although it's available from Amazon for $495).

The collection also demonstrates that there's been no drop in the level of Ma's performances, no matter what he tackles. Those include forays into different musical genres, which classical music purists bridle at but which have become one of Ma's calling cards: the film music of Ennio Morricone, traditional American fiddling with violinist and composer Mark O'Connor, and his ongoing work with the Silk Road Ensemble, a group he created in 2000 to explore exchanging music of different cultures.

Commanding connections

Ara Guzelimian, dean of the Juilliard School and former artistic adviser for Carnegie Hall, has known Ma since the 1970s. "I think in Yo-Yo's case," he says, "all of the things he does and his public role have helped keep reinventing him as a musician. That's not only kept him alive, but fresh."

"I just finished playing a bunch of recitals with him," said pianist Emanuel Ax, one of Ma's earliest and most frequent collaborators, speaking by phone last week from Europe. "I think he's playing better than he's ever played."

If Ma weren't a cellist, he could be a world-class politician. His gift for connecting with people is stunning. Some stars have a presence that commands attention; Ma, by contrast, makes you feel like his best friend, whether you're an orchestra musician, one of the backstage crew or the owner of the restaurant Henrietta's Table in Cambridge, a town where he and his wife, Jill Hornor, a German professor whom he met as a teenager at the Marlboro music school in Vermont, have lived for decades.

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