Yo-Yo Ma and His Passion for Musical Communication

When cellist Yo-Yo Ma was 25, he had an operation for scoliosis, a congenital curvature of the spine undoubtedly aggravated by playing the cello. Now, just turned 33, he looks back at the 10-day hospital stay from a somewhat surprising perspective.

“In one way, it was a most wonderful thing to go through, because you think about what’s important--you may come out being able to play the cello but if not, you realize you can still go on and lead a productive life. Music also deals with life-and-death questions, sickness, overcoming tragedy. So those things you’ve gone through add to your life experience and therefore your understanding of the music, and there’s more depth to your communicating of the music.”

Ma, who will perform with the Los Angeles Philharmonic at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion on Thursday, Friday and Sunday and at the Orange County Performing Arts Center Saturday, is passionate about music’s power to communicate and his own responsibility in aiding the process. He elaborated by phone last week from his Boston home, shortly after returning from a European tour.

“A lot of people are intimidated by great works, the masters. But committing yourself to an idea is so important. You have to dare to go outside yourself, enter the world of the composer--the times he lived, the values he may have held. If you’re truly involved in playing music--or listening--it does take you outside yourself in ways that are usually invigorating.”


Indeed, many critics have recognized and applauded this intensely personal communion with the composers whose music he performs, along with a commanding technical dexterity that he has been perfecting since the age of 4, when he began studying in his native Paris under the tutelage of his Chinese father, a musicologist and violinist. He gave his first public recital the following year and later studied under Leonard Rose at Juilliard.

Of course, he acknowledged, his interpretation of the music does come from within.

“When you play a concerto, you say, ‘How old is the protagonist going to be today?’ It’s not a trick or a gimmick. It’s a psychological thing. You look at how the conductor feels, how the orchestra plays. It’s like looking at a crystal from many different points of view--the greater the work, the more ways you can look at it.

“Take the Haydn Cello Concerto in C (which he will play with the Philharmonic). The outer movements are very ebullient. The second movement is slow. You can imagine a performance given by someone who’s at the end of his life, having simplicity; as you get older, athletic ability is less but there’s more experience. So you can imagine yourself as being so young you’re looking at the piece for the first time, or having maturity, no longer innocent.”

Ma will also play Dvorak’s Rondo in G minor for Cello. “I love Dvorak,” he said. “There’s an American connection--he lived in New York for a number of years and went to Iowa because there was a big Czech community there. The Rondo is a delightful piece of music--lighthearted, tuneful, totally enjoyable, like a puff pastry. It’s a wonderful 10 minutes of fun.”

Two seasons from now, Ma and the Philharmonic will premiere a concerto that music director Andre Previn is now writing, one of about 10 works the cellist has commissioned from various composers.

“I’m very concerned with creativity in our profession, having pieces awaited like a novelist with a new book that people are dying to see,” he said. “And part of what makes this profession continue is that there is more music to be written, and people who look forward to playing it.”

Ma enjoys playing the full range of classical literature--concertos, solo recitals and chamber music alike. He regularly teams with pianist Emanuel Ax for duo recitals and recordings, and performs in a trio with Ax and violinist Young-Uck Kim. “It’s like exercising different muscles. I also think it’s important to read and be aware of what’s going on in the world today, what art means in America today, and what each country’s values are.”


The cellist has also ventured into the world of jazz. Last April, he joined pianist Roger Kellaway and others in a Carnegie Hall concert celebrating jazz violinist Stephane Grappelli’s 80th birthday, and is now studying with Kellaway in hopes of future collaborations.

Other plans include a tour of Poland and Czechoslovakia, a return to the Pavilion in January with Emanuel Ax, more recordings and giving master classes. He also teaches during the summer at the Tanglewood Festival School.

“I want to keep taking certain risks, commissioning and learning new music as well as playing the other music I love,” he said. “I want to make a contribution to this profession, not in a way to celebrate the star system, but for musical content.”