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Who is Yo-Yo Ma?

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  • Written By: Tricia Ellis-Christensen
  • Edited By: O. Wallace
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  • Last Modified Date: 28 August 2016
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Yo-Yo Ma is arguably one of the most gifted and certainly one of the most eclectic cellists in the world today. He is known internationally for not only the many classical pieces he performs with great aplomb but also his willingness to think outside of the box musically. Yo-Yo Ma has recorded over 75 albums, many of them strictly considered classical in arrangement, while others diverge significantly from classical music. He’s worked with musicians like Bobby McFerrin, Sting, and the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, and explored musical forms that range from traditional Chinese music and bluegrass to the music of the Kalahari Bush. His musical explorations, including the scoring or performance in numerous films, have garnered Ma many awards and honors.

Born to Chinese immigrant parents in Paris in 1955, Yo-Yo Ma was already a gifted musician by the time his family moved to the US, when he was seven. He played violin and viola well at age four, before switching to cello. One of his first performances where he was much noted was a 1962 performance for President John F. Kennedy. Ma was certainly a prodigy, appearing on television by the time he was eight, and performing with numerous orchestras through his teens. Ma’s parents were likely a strong influence on the young boy. Both were gifted musicians, and Ma’s older sister is an accomplished violinist, who with her husband runs the Children Orchestra Society in New York.

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Like many young extraordinary musicians, Yo-Yo Ma’s education path included study at the prestigious Juilliard School of Music. Unlike prodigies that stay on a singular path, Ma felt that he wanted to expand his education by taking a traditional liberal arts course at first Columbia and then Harvard University, where he received his bachelor’s degree in 1976. He wasn’t always certain that he should continue to pursue his career as a cellist, and cites hearing the work of Pablo Casals, the renowned Spanish cellist, as inspiration to continue his studies and performance.

By the early 1980s, Yo-Yo Ma had become internationally known, and some of his recordings from this time period, including the Bach Cello Suites are thought particularly inspired. Ma also began to express considerable interest in the possibilities of musical education for children. To that end, he made appearances on shows like Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood, Arthur, and Sesame Street. Later he exhibited his strong sense of humor by playing himself on an episode of The Simpsons and he’s appeared on The West Wing, Seinfeld and in commercials for Apple® Computers.

Throughout much of his career, Ma’s primary choice of instrument has been a Dominico Montagnana cello made in 1733. He also owns a Stradivarius cello gifted to him by English cellist, Jacqueline du Pre, upon her death in 1987. Yo-Yo Ma hasn’t played only the cello, but has experimented with a variety of instruments, especially period instruments to record Baroque music, and traditional instruments specific to several cultures.

In 1998, Ma formed the Silk Road Orchestra, a collection of musicians both traditional and otherwise from the many places through Asia, the Middle East and Europe. His commitment to bringing together the diverse cultures represented by the ancient Silk Road is expressed in Ma’s political stance of peace through music. In 2006, UN Secretary General Kofi Anan named Ma a Peace Ambassador.

When not traveling with his orchestra or performing with other musicians around the world, Ma lives in Massachusetts with his wife, Jill Hornor. The two have been married since 1977, and have two children together.

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