It is a few minutes before rehearsal.
A tall, slender man, dressed in a loose cardigan, is checking the stage of the concert hall where he will perform a Debussy cello sonata that night. The hair at the back of his head sticks out slightly, as if he has been napping earlier.
But the world-renowned cellist, Yo-Yo Ma, is very much alert. After a careful inspection of the hall, he invites his fellow performer, Vadim Sakharov, to the stage. Soon after they start playing the piece together, Ma suddenly stands up and jumps off the stage.
He sits in a third-row seat and suggests that the Russian-born pianist practice bowing. Volunteering to be the audience, Ma starts clapping excitedly for Sakharov. Ma provides detailed instructions, in fluent French, about how to make eye contact with the audience from the stage. Again and again, he makes Sakharov repeat the bowing until it becomes graceful.
Anyone would be puzzled: Sakharov is a professional; surely he’s played, and bowed, for countless audiences. Toshio Watanabe, who has managed all of Ma’s tours of Japan, offers an explanation of the cellist’s unexpected behavior. “Ma believes that a concert performer has to keep expressing himself externally. If you’re just playing for yourself, it’s fine to express yourself internally, but once you are on the stage, Ma says that you have to be a performer, an actor.”
Ma, who recently finished a concert tour of Japan — his 18th here since 1981 — has had plenty of experience being in the spotlight. He began studying the cello with his father at the age of 4 and gave many public concerts, including one at Carnegie Hall, before he reached the age of 10.
He spent most of his adolescent years in New York. At the Julliard School, he was primarily under the tutelage of Leonard Rose, a cellist known as one of the best American teachers and musicians of the 20th century. At that time, Ma was already being compared to cello masters such as Pablo Casals and Mstislav Rostropovich. However, instead of pursuing his studies at a conservatory or music school, Ma chose a liberal arts education at Harvard University.
“I never did well at school, I mean, I never got great grades, and I was never good at writing papers. But I was always so curious. I wanted to understand things around me — the world out there. For instance, I took classes like anthropology, history, archaeology and psychology, and the education there had some kind of effect on everything I have done since graduation.”
Summing up his experiences at Harvard, Ma says, “One of the best parts of it was that I was able to meet fellow students who were passionate about their own subjects as much as I could be about music or the cello. I also learned that if I didn’t become a cellist, there are so many other things to do in the world.”
Fortunately for music lovers, Ma decided to become a cellist, but one with a broad perspective on music. Between his graduation in 1976 and his acceptance of an honorary doctorate in 1991, Ma’s reputation grew steadily outside the realm of classical music. This rise in fame can be linked to his many Grammy awards, but it’s also simply because Ma is a hardworking publicist for the cello and classical music in general. This can be seen in his appearances on children’s TV shows such as “Sesame Street” as well as his numerous projects with artists from different disciplines.
Ma says his open and inquisitive attitude was greatly shaped by Luise Vosgerchian, one of his music professors at Harvard. “She kept pounding on us the importance of two things in music: That is to firmly grasp ‘Who wrote it? And why?’ Before worrying about technical or structural aspects of [the music], what you have to know is the context behind the piece. I learned this important lesson from her — the very core of playing the music. For instance, if you were to play a Beethoven piece, you should ask who is Beethoven and why he wrote this particular piece, you see?”
Ma now shares this fundamental approach, as well as his methods for using music as a tool of communication, whenever he teaches. “I don’t tell [my students] ‘Do this!’ or ‘Do that!’ Technique is a secondary thing. We sit down in a circle, and I ask what they feel and what they want to do with [the] music. If they know what’s inside, then they can start expressing. A lot of students have some excellent techniques and they are great, yet so few know what they want to do with the music. Essentially, you have to understand people, including yourself.”
This is the mindset that Ma takes with him on his tours around the world and to his many collaborations with people from various cultural or artistic backgrounds. It’s also evident in his more than 50 recordings, 14 of which are Grammy Award winners. They include everything from “Appalachian Journey,” on which he strove to produce a “more pure, more basic sound” to “Piazzolla: Soul of the Tango,” which was inspired by “the nostalgia” he felt in Buenos Aires.
However, it is Bach’s cello suites that form the heart of his oeuvre — performed faithfully to the note but also tapped as inspiration for new works and in collaboration with artists from different fields. A prime example would be the film “Struggle for Hope,” in which Ma worked with kabuki master Tamasaburo Bando. The fruit of their labors is a dance performed and choreographed by Bando, accompanied by Ma playing Bach’s Cello Suite No. 5 in C minor. In the film, the musician says it is his favorite suite, describing it as a work that is both profoundly spiritual and sad.
It was thus appropriate that this was the Bach suite that Ma chose to play two weeks ago, as a tribute to a longtime friend, Prince Takamado, who died on Nov. 21. The live recording was rebroadcast several times on NHK to console those who grieved the prince’s passing.
While a deeper appreciation of Bach’s suites could be seen as his lifework, Mas has, over the past four years, been engaged in another long-term endeavor: The Silk Road Project.
With Ma as its central figure, it was established in 1998 to promote of an understanding of the countries and cultures along the Silk Road.
The project team investigated the traditional music of the area and assigned composers to create a new kind of Silk Road music. Ma then played the cello with masters of traditional music from countries including India, Iran Mongolia and China.
While the project has been successful, with four recordings released thus far, Ma does not take the obstacles of experiencing different cultures lightly. “At first, when artists from different countries gather, it is difficult to open up,” he says. “There is a fear. I think it is a fear of being tainted, but as a matter of fact, after we play together, and when we go back [to our traditional style of playing] it is much better. New knowledge always enriches you . . .
“We can’t go on not knowing about our neighbors, and we should acknowledge each other’s place as well as the preciousness of it.”
Although Ma has decided to take part in this project for another four years, he sees the project continuing indefinitely, hopefully inspiring future generations to bring new elements to the project. As much as he values tradition, he welcomes change.
“Categorizing is important, but once you have new knowledge, you have to re-categorize, because otherwise you will be stuck,” Ma says.
He says that it’s important to focus on similarities rather than differences.
“What you value the most, or what becomes your priority, makes the difference, but the elements are all the same — in culture or in music. If your rhythm is your priority, the music will be different from another in which melody is your priority. And even if your priority is different, we can still appreciate each other. I might not do it myself, but I could like what other people do.”
“Once [musical] style is established, everyone talks about being pure, but before that, people were doing and trying all sorts of different things. Compared to a long history of the Earth, human history is so short. Compared to the great commonality, the difference is subtle.”
To Ma, culture and tradition are dynamic. He realizes that the era in which he was asked whether “an Asian could play Western music” is long gone, and that drawing clear-cut lines between even vastly different cultures is virtually impossible today.
Of course, given his background, Ma is a well-qualified ambassador of multicultural understanding. “I have Chinese parents, and was born in Paris [in 1955], and moved to the States when I was 7,” he says. “By then, I already had experienced three different cultures.”
After spending nearly half a day with him, I had a better sense of this. His dynamic approach to life somehow recalls the American idealism of Walt Whitman (“I celebrate myself”) and his embrace of humanity’s diversity. In his sense of history, I see his Chinese roots and in his playful charm, I detect a Parisian. And yet Ma is Ma — exquisitely unique and difficult to label as Chinese, French or American.
Later on at the rehearsal, Ma goes backstage to practice alone. The slow-tempo melody I hear behind the stage door is smooth and elegant like the hand he extended to me when we met, yet as welcoming and comforting as his smile. The practice session also reminds me of his perfectionism, much like the detailed notes he had prepared for this interview.
Ma had explained that it is very difficult to quantify a person’s consciousness, but with music, it is possible. In other words, our deep inner selves are inevitably revealed by music. On the stage that night, Ma performs an evocative cello sonata by Debussy. While the composer was a French Impressionist, I can smell fragrances of India, old Persia, Mongolia and China. Maybe this was what Debussy wanted to express, or maybe it is Ma’s interpretation. Indeed, music “codes [people's] consciousness” — a consciousness that cannot be measured any other way.