The Diverse World Of Yo-Yo Ma

Oct 7, 2015

Few musicians possess an appetite for diversity as voracious as Yo-Yo Ma's.

The renowned cellist, who turns 60 today, calls himself a "venture culturalist." His collaborations include making music for dancers (including Monday night's collaboration with American Ballet Theatre Principal Dancer Misty Copeland on Stephen Colbert's Late Show), filmmakers, garden designers, architects, Kabuki artists, Muppets and figure skaters.

"Music, ultimately, is one of the great ways that we as humans have for coding internal life," Ma said in a PBS documentary. "It's glue that joins people together."

Musically, Ma embraces bluegrass, jazz and Brazilian bossa nova, plus a myriad of traditional sounds from across Asia, the Middle East and Europe with his Silk Road Ensemble.

Then there's his passion for the core classics. Last month, Ma played all six of J.S. Bach's unaccompanied cello suites in a sold-out performance in London's massive Royal Albert Hall. Today's top composers have written pieces for him. It's all earned him a reputation as his generation's most respected cellist.

Ma also happens to be a skilled advocate for the arts. In 2013, he delivered the Nancy Hanks Lecture on Arts and Public Policy in Washington, D.C. The speech, which he titled "Art for Life's Sake," ranged from wonkish statistics to big ideas. "Societies are powered by three engines: politics, economics and culture," Ma said. "A vibrant society exists when all three engines are firing and intersecting, resulting in a populace that is energized, engaged and fulfilled."

Yo-Yo Ma was born Oct. 7, 1955 to Chinese parents living in Paris. At age 4, he started learning the cello with his father. After moving to the U.S., one of his earliest public performances, at age 7, was for a gala event that included Presidents Eisenhower and Kennedy and Leonard Bernstein. Later Ma entered Juilliard, where his main teacher was Leonard Rose, and persued a traditional liberal arts education at Harvard, graduating in 1976.

Ma's list of awards and achievements is exhaustive: 18 Grammys, the Presidential Medal of Freedom and National Medal of the Arts. He is a Kennedy Center Honoree, United Nations Messenger for Peace and a member of the President's Committee on Arts and the Humanities.

Still, despite all the honors, perhaps Yo-Yo Ma's greatest gift is just being himself — with tireless curiosity and a generous spirit. To mark Ma's 60th, we've collected a handful of performances that barely begin to display the depth of this singular artist.

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