He may be the greatest cellist in the world and, some would argue, the greatest cellist ever. Legendary players such as Pablo Casals, Jacqueline du Préand Mstislav Rostropovich, have all left indelible marks. Casals was the trailblazer with the passionate commitment to human dignity. Du Préwas a tragic and beloved figure, a player of extraordinary drama and charisma. Rostropovich helped build the instrument’s modern repertoire, inspiring or premiering works by Shostakovich, Prokofiev and a host of others. But Yo-Yo Ma consolidated everything that came before, made it look effortless, and somehow found time to go past the cello and refashion himself into something bigger. He has invented a term for what he does, though he is too modest to apply it to himself except as a goal. He is the consummate “citizen musician.”

His people say he lives out of a suitcase, and it’s easy to believe. Ma performs around the world, playing the Dvorak cello concerto in Pittsburgh, Atlanta and Kansas City in a typical stretch of several weeks. He has recorded more than 75 albums, with Grammy Award wins almost an annual occurrence (five for chamber music, four for crossover and multiple wins as a soloist). The Kennedy Center Honors is only one item on a very long list, including the prestigious Avery Fisher Prize, the National Medal of Arts, and the Presidential Medal of Freedom just last year. Few artists today can guarantee a sellout crowd, which means that orchestras and concert presenters rely increasingly on a handful of super-musicians with enormous name recognition and audience loyalty. Ma is one of them. But more than anything else, Ma is renowned for never giving a second-rate performance, never being off his game, never phoning it in. If there are bad reviews of a Ma concert out there, they assuredly read like Mark Twain’s grumpy and ironic description of opera: “It’s too generous.”

Go to YouTube and watch him perform Saint-Saens’s “The Swan,” one of the hoariest chestnuts of the repertoire. The music swells and subsides in long arcs, as if sung in one ecstatic breath. His bow never seems to run out of room, extending the sound seamlessly. His left hand rocks delicately on the strings, making the tone quiver like the voice of someone remembering a very sad story. He’s played it a hundred times, perhaps a thousand times or more. But every note of every phrase feels fresh and meaningful.

Throughout it, Ma never looks at his instrument or at the music, which is all in his head. Instead, he focuses intently on Charles “Lil’ Buck” Riley, a street dancer from Memphis. To the sounds of Ma’s cello, Riley twists on one foot, almost goes up on point, oozes across the floor as if skating on ice, and allows the undulations of Saint-Saens’s haunting melody to flow out to his finger tips and toes. The mesmerizing choreography is equally indebted to Michael Jackson and Anna Pavlova, the great ballerina for whom this was a signature piece. The video, filmed by Spike Jonze at a meeting of the President’s Committee on the Arts and the Humanities (on which Ma serves), has had more than 1.5 million hits online.

Damian Woetzel, a ballet dancer who is now head of the Aspen Institute’s arts programs and who has worked with Ma on education projects, can claim partial credit for the remarkable performance. When Woetzel first saw Lil’ Buck, he immediately thought of Ma and sent him a video of the young dancer.

“And Yo-Yo said, ‘Oh my God, we’ve got to do something,’ ” Woetzel says. This is how some of the strangest and most compelling collaborations in the music world have happened over the past few decades. Ma gets excited, and the magic happens. They recently performed it in China.

Only if you’ve been asleep for the past 20 years would it seem strange that a master cellist is accompanying a street dancer. In conversation, Ma doesn’t even use the word classical music, preferring to talk about “acoustic music.” Perhaps, when he recorded a Cole Porter album with Stephane Grappelli in 1989 or collaborated with Bobby McFerrin in 1992, people would call this kind of thing “crossover” work. But, in large part because of Ma’s insistence on continually crossing boundaries, those labels now seem to obscure more than they reveal. Ma has helped reinvent the way people think about classical music, expanding its audiences and its boundaries to the point that the only term that seems encompassing enough to describe what he does is the one he invented: citizen musician.

Anthropological spirit

Ma was born in 1955. His parents, musicians of Chinese descent, were living in Paris, and their son got started on the cello early. A few years after the family relocated to New York City, Ma began studying with Leonard Rose, a legendary teacher at the Juilliard School. Ma was a prodigy and could have been gone on the road as a performer at an age when other kids go to college. But he made what turned out to be a critical choice. He postponed the musician’s itinerant life and went to Harvard, where he studied anthropology.

“I think I knew that I needed to grow up,” he says. “I felt very immature. I think I needed to get away from home, leave the parental umbrella behind.” From then on, Ma, who lives in Cambridge, Mass., has been in some way a part of Harvard, and the best of Harvard — the spirit of excellence and inquiry — has always been a part of him.

“I often will say to somebody that what you put in your mind before you are 21 is sort of like your intellectual, emotional bank account,” he says. “You will be drawing on that for the rest of your life.”

In Ma’s case, he says, it was his study of anthropology that capitalized the brain account. It made him question where he came from, the assumptions of the people around him, and the way in which human beings form communities and webs of reliance. Anthropology became an ethos, an emotional attitude to the world that remains embedded in everything that Ma does.

Kathryn Stott, a pianist who has accompanied Ma in recitals for years, says she saw the anthropological mind in action when Ma first discovered the music of the late, great tango master Astor Piazzolla.

“I’ll never forget him calling me at home to tell me about it,” she says. It was a transcontinental phone call, and a rarity for Ma to call her at home. “He said, ‘I am so excited I have discovered this music. It made me feel totally alive again. We have to play it.’ This was at a time when not many people knew about tango music and the revival of Piazzolla.”

That discovery led to “Soul of the Tango,” an album of Piazzolla’s music, in 1997, by which time Ma’s annual output of recordings was as likely to include Appalachian folk music as Mozart or Bach. But Stott says the discovery of Piazzolla wasn’t just about some interesting new music. It changed the way they played.

“That was a pivotal point,” she says. Piazzolla was being incorporated, in her playing and his, down to the intricate details of how they thought about rhythm.

If the anthropological spirit was first evident in an enormous appetite for all kinds of music, it has grown into the organizing principle of Ma’s career, which is filled with uncannily prescient projects. In the 1990s, Ma began a new look at the Bach cello suites, a monumental opus he had recorded brilliantly in 1983. That led to a series of 1997 films called “Inspired by Bach,” documenting his collaboration with artists outside of music, including filmmaker Atom Egoyan, choreographer Mark Morris and the ice dancers Jayne Torvill and Christopher Dean. In 1998, Ma started the Silk Road project to explore the diverse music and cultures of countries crossed by the ancient trade route. When he brought a group of 13 international musicians, the Silk Road Ensemble, to the Kennedy Center in October 2001, the United States had just begun its long-running war in Afghanistan, territory through which the ancient Silk Road passed.

The Silk Road Ensemble has become an ongoing endeavor, and it has led to an increased engagement with public education. Ma has created Silk Road projects for schools around the country. Ask him about indigo, the ancient dye that makes things blue, and you get a long disquisition on its history and how it can be used to help students relate to both the Silk Road, the blues and the jeans they’re wearing.

And he is now the Chicago Symphony Orchestra’s creative consultant, heavily focused on working in the local school system. The goal, he says, is to make connections with kids, and to get more musicians thinking like “citizen musicians,” defining their mission more broadly than concerts and teaching.

“Music doesn’t have to happen in concert halls,” he says. “It can happen anyplace, and it does serve a purpose.” He is participating in large performances created by and for children, in flash-mob concerts that materialize music in unexpected places, and in projects that bring local musicians into jails, colleges and elementary schools.

“Yo-Yo is a connector,” says Deborah Rutter, the orchestra’s president. “He is a natural convener of people.”

Passing the music on

Ma insists that his educational work isn’t extracurricular, a distraction or addendum to the real work he does. It’s fundamental to the entire project of being Yo-Yo Ma.

“The most important thing I can do in a performance is make it memorable,” he says. “That is also the goal of learning.” Learning, he argues, isn’t about disposable knowledge, the stuff you cram in your head, but epiphanies of emotion and engagement that stay with you a lifetime. Which is exactly what he hopes happens on stage.

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.

“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