Yo-Yo Ma

Yo-Yo Ma (born October 7, 1955) is an American cellist.[2] Born in Paris to Chinese[3] parents and educated in New York City, Ma was a child prodigy, performing from the age of four and a half. He graduated from the Juilliard School and Harvard University, and has performed as a soloist with orchestras around the world. He has recorded more than 90 albums and received 18 Grammy Awards.

Yo-Yo Ma
Yo-Yo Ma in 2013
Yo-Yo Ma in 2013
Background information
Born (1955-10-07) October 7, 1955 (age 65)
Paris, France
  • Musician
  • teacher
  • humanitarian[1]
Years active1961–present
Associated acts
Yo-Yo Ma
Traditional Chinese馬友友
Simplified Chinese马友友

In addition to recordings of the standard classical repertoire, he has recorded a wide variety of folk music, such as American bluegrass music, traditional Chinese melodies, the tangos of Argentine composer Astor Piazzolla, and Brazilian music. He has collaborated with artists including singer Bobby McFerrin, guitarist Carlos Santana, Sérgio Assad and his brother, Odair, and singer-songwriter and guitarist James Taylor. Ma's primary performance instrument is a Montagnana cello crafted in 1733 and valued at US$2.5 million.

He has been a United Nations Messenger of Peace since 2006.[4] He was awarded The Glenn Gould Prize in 1999, the National Medal of Arts in 2001,[5] the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2011, and the Polar Music Prize in 2012.[6]

Ma is included in Time magazine's 100 Most Influential People of 2020.[7]

Early life and educationEdit

Yo-Yo Ma was born in Paris, France, on October 7, 1955, to Chinese[3] parents and had a musical upbringing. His mother, Marina Lu [zh], was a singer, and his father, Hiao-Tsiun Ma [zh], was a violinist and professor of music at Nanjing National Central University (predecessor of the present-day Nanjing University and Southeast University), and they both migrated from the Republic of China to France during the Chinese Civil War. His sister, Yeou-Cheng Ma, played the violin and piano before obtaining a medical degree and becoming a pediatrician.[8] The family moved to New York City when Ma was seven years old.[9][10]

From the earliest possible age, Ma played the violin, piano, and later viola, but settled on cello in 1960 at age four. Ma jokes that his first choice was the double bass due to its large size, but he compromised and took up cello instead. The child prodigy began performing before audiences at age five and performed for presidents Dwight D. Eisenhower and John F. Kennedy when he was seven.[11][12] At age eight, he appeared on American television with his sister[13] in an event introduced by Leonard Bernstein. In 1964, Isaac Stern introduced them on The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson, and they performed the Sonata of Sammartini. He attended Trinity School in New York but transferred to the Professional Children's School, where he graduated at age 15.[14] He appeared as a soloist with the Harvard Radcliffe Orchestra in a performance of Tchaikovsky's Rococo Variations.

Ma studied at The Juilliard School at age 19 with Leonard Rose and attended Columbia University, but dropped out. He later enrolled at Harvard College. Prior to entering Harvard, Ma played in the Marlboro Festival Orchestra under the direction of cellist and conductor Pablo Casals. Ma spent four summers at the Marlboro Music Festival after meeting and falling in love with Mount Holyoke College sophomore and festival administrator Jill Hornor during his first summer there in 1972.[15]

Even before that time, Ma gained fame and performed with many of the world's major orchestras. He has also played chamber music, often with pianist Emanuel Ax, with whom he has a close friendship from their days together at the Juilliard School of Music. Ma received his bachelor's degree from Harvard in 1976.[16] In 1991, he received an honorary doctorate from Harvard.[17]


Ma performs at the White House for American president Ronald Reagan, Crown Princess Michiko and Crown Prince Akihito of Japan, and Nancy Reagan, October 1987

In 1997, he was featured on John Williams' soundtrack to the Hollywood film Seven Years in Tibet. In 2000, he was heard on the soundtrack of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and on that of Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World in 2003. He collaborated with Williams again on the original score for the 2005 film Memoirs of a Geisha. Ma has also worked with Italian composer Ennio Morricone and has recorded Morricone's compositions of the Dollars Trilogy, including The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, as well as Once Upon a Time in America, The Mission, and The Untouchables. He also has over 90 albums, 18 of which are Grammy Award winners. Ma is a recipient of the International Center in New York's Award of Excellence.

In addition to his prolific musical career, Ma collaborated in 1999 with landscape architects to design a Bach-inspired garden. This space, known as the Music Garden, interprets Bach's Suite No. 1 in G Major for unaccompanied cello - BWV 1007, constructing each section in the garden to fit the dance movements within the suite.[18] Toronto enthusiastically embraced the design, originally planned for Boston, and it was subsequently built in the Harbourfront (Toronto) neighborhood.[19]

Ma was named Peace Ambassador by then-UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan in January 2006.[20] He is a founding member of the influential Chinese-American Committee of 100, which addresses the concerns of Americans of Chinese heritage.[21]

On November 3, 2009, President Obama appointed Ma to serve on the President's Committee on the Arts and Humanities.[22] His music was featured in the 2010 documentary Jews and Baseball: An American Love Story, narrated by Academy Award winner Dustin Hoffman.[23][24][25] In 2010, President Obama announced that he would be recognizing Ma with the Presidential Medal of Freedom; Ma was presented with the award at the ceremonies in February 2011.[26]

In 2010, Ma was named Judson and Joyce Green Creative Consultant of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. In partnership with the orchestra's music director, Riccardo Muti, he launched the Citizen Musician initiative.[27] Yo-Yo Ma is represented by the independent artist management firm Opus 3 Artists.[28] Also in 2010, he appeared on a solo album by guitarist Carlos Santana, Guitar Heaven: The Greatest Guitar Classics of All Time, playing alongside Santana and singer India Arie on a Beatles classic, While My Guitar Gently Weeps.

In 2015, Ma performed alongside singer-songwriter and guitarist James Taylor for two separate tracks on Taylor's chart-topping record Before This World: You And I Again, in addition to the title track.

In 2019, Ma directed at the annual Youth Music Culture Guangdong.

Silk Road EnsembleEdit

Ma formed his own collective, the Silk Road Ensemble, named after the route across Asia which for more than 2,000 years was used for trade between Europe and China. His goal was to bring together musicians from diverse countries that were historically linked via the Silk Road.[29] The ensemble's recordings are issued on the Sony Classical label. He also founded the Silk Road Connect, an educational pilot program for children from middle schools in the United States, including New York City.[30]

Playing styleEdit

Ma has been referred to by critics as "omnivorous" and possesses an eclectic repertoire.[31] His versatility, in addition to numerous recordings of the standard classical repertoire, includes his recordings of Baroque pieces using period instruments; American bluegrass music; traditional Chinese melodies, including the soundtrack to the film Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon; the tangos of Argentinian composer Astor Piazzolla; Brazilian music, recording traditional songs and songs composed by Antônio Carlos Jobim and Pixinguinha; a collaboration with Bobby McFerrin (where Ma admitted to being terrified by McFerrin's improvisation); as well as the music of modern minimalist Philip Glass in such works as the 2002 Naqoyqatsi.

Ma is known for his smooth, rich tone as well as his virtuosity,[32] including a cello recording of Niccolò Paganini's Caprice No. 24 for solo violin and Zoltán Kodály's Solo Sonata.


Ma's primary performance instrument is the cello nicknamed "Petunia", built by Domenico Montagnana in 1733, and valued at US$2.5 million. It was named Petunia by a student who approached him after one of his classes in Salt Lake City asking if he had a nickname for his cello. He said, "No, but if I play for you, will you name it?" She chose Petunia and it stuck.[33] Yo-Yo Ma accidentally left this cello in a taxicab in New York City in 1999, but it was quickly returned undamaged.[34] That same year, when Petunia's neck was damaged during X-ray baggage inspection, he borrowed the Pawle Stradivarius cello from the Chimei Museum for a concert in Taiwan. The damage was repaired in time, but Ma played both Petunia and Pawle during the concert nonetheless.[35][36][37]

Another of Ma's cellos, the Davidov Stradivarius, was previously owned by Jacqueline du Pré, who passed it to him upon her death. Though du Pré previously voiced her frustration with the "unpredictability" of this cello, Yo-Yo Ma attributed the comment to du Pré's impassioned style of playing, adding that the Stradivarius cello must be "coaxed" by the player.[38] It was until recently set up in a Baroque manner, since Ma exclusively played Baroque music on it.

He also owns a modern cello made by Peter and Wendela Moes of Peißenberg, Germany, and one of carbon fiber by the Luis and Clark company of Boston.[39]

Live performancesEdit

Ma with Condoleezza Rice after performing a duet at the presentation of the 2001 National Medal of Arts and National Humanities Medal Awards.

On July 5, 1986, Ma performed on the New York Philharmonic's tribute to the 100th anniversary of the Statue of Liberty, which was televised live on ABC Television.[40] The orchestra, conducted by Zubin Mehta, performed in Central Park.

Ma performed a duet with Condoleezza Rice at the presentation of the 2001 National Medal of Arts and National Humanities Medal Awards. Ma was the first performer on September 11, 2002 at the site of the World Trade Center, while the first of the names of the dead were read in remembrance on the first anniversary of the attack on the WTC. He played the Sarabande from Bach's Cello Suite #5 in C Minor.[41] He performed a special arrangement of Sting's "Fragile" with Sting and the Mormon Tabernacle Choir during the opening ceremonies of the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City, Utah. He has also appeared as a Pennington Great Performers series artist with the Baton Rouge Symphony Orchestra in 2005.

He performed John Williams' "Air and Simple Gifts" at the inauguration ceremony for Barack Obama on January 20, 2009, along with Itzhak Perlman (violin), Gabriela Montero (piano), and Anthony McGill (clarinet). While the quartet did play live, the music, played simultaneously over speakers and on television, was a recording made two days prior due to concerns over the cold weather damaging the instruments. Ma was quoted as saying, "A broken string was not an option. It was wicked cold."[42]

On May 3, 2009, Ma performed the world premiere of Bruce Adolphe's "Self Comes to Mind" for solo cello and two percussionists with John Ferrari and Ayano Kataoka at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City. The work is based on a poetic description written for the composer of the evolution of brain into mind by neuroscientist Antonio Damasio and featured, at the premiere, a film of brain scans provided by Hanna Damasio and other images, coordinated with the music during the performance.

Ma appearing at the World Economic Forum's annual meeting in 2008

On August 29, 2009, Ma performed at the funeral mass for Senator Edward M. Kennedy. Pieces he performed included the Sarabande movement from Bach's Cello Suite No. 6 and Franck's Panis angelicus with Plácido Domingo.[43]

On October 3, 2009, Ma appeared alongside Canadian prime minister Stephen Harper at the National Arts Centre gala in Ottawa. Harper, a fan of The Beatles, played the piano and sang a rendition of "With a Little Help from My Friends" while Ma accompanied him on his cello. On October 16, 2011, Ma performed at the memorial for Steve Jobs held in Stanford University's Memorial Church.[44]

In 2011, Ma performed with American dancer Charles "Lil Buck" Riley in the United States and in China at the U.S.-China Forum on the Arts and Culture.[45]

On April 18, 2013, Ma performed at an interfaith service to honor the victims of the Boston Marathon bombing, held at the Cathedral of the Holy Cross. He played the Sarabande from Bach's Cello Suite No. 5 in C Minor. Also, he and other musicians accompanied members of the Boston Children's Chorus in a hymn.[46]

Ma's performance at Paranal Observatory, home of the Very Large Telescope[47]

On September 12, 2017, Ma performed all six of Bach's cello suites at the Hollywood Bowl (Los Angeles). After the first three suites, there was a "ten-minute pause" (as the Bowl video screen described it). An estimated 17,000 in attendance also heard Ma perform an encore, a tribute to "cellist Pablo Casals, who as a 13-year-old in 1890 discovered an old copy of the Bach suites in a secondhand music store, bringing them to modern attention. Ma's memorable last words were to any 13-year-olds in the audience: "Don't throw anything away."[48]

On May 1, 2019, Ma performed at Paranal Observatory in the Atacama desert. Ma was motivated to visit the astronomical observatory and perform at this location by his interest in astronomy.

On June 20, 2019, Ma performed the Bach Complete Cello Suites in plein air at Jay Pritzker Pavilion in Chicago, Illinois. The free performance attracted what might have been his largest audience, with a pavilion capacity of 11,000, and many thousands more listening in from the surrounding Millennium Park.

On January 20, 2021, a performance of "Amazing Grace", pre-recorded due to the COVID-19 pandemic, was played during the inauguration of Joe Biden.[49][50] In March 2021, he played "Ave Maria", in an impromptu waiting room concert, after receiving his second dose of a COVID-19 vaccine, at Berkshire Community College in Massachusetts.[51][52]

On September 14, 2021, Ma again performed all six of Bach's cello suites at the Hollywood Bowl (Los Angeles), this time without intermission, pausing only briefly for applause between suites, and to address the audience twice, issuing dedications both times.

Media appearancesEdit

Ma has appeared in an episode of the animated children's television series Arthur, as well as on The West Wing (episode "Noël", in which he performed the prelude to Bach's Cello Suite No.1 at a Congressional Christmas party), and Sesame Street. In The Simpsons episode "Missionary: Impossible", Ma (voiced by Hank Azaria) runs after Homer Simpson along with many other frequent guests of PBS. Ma later appeared in the episode "Puffless" where he played a serenade and theme music. He appeared twice on Mister Rogers' Neighborhood and developed a friendship with creator and host Fred Rogers. Ma later received the inaugural Fred Rogers Legacy Award.

He also starred in the visual accompaniment to his recordings of Bach's Six Suites for Unaccompanied Cello.

Ma was often invited to press events by Apple Inc. and Pixar CEO Steve Jobs and has performed on stage during event keynote presentations, as well as appearing in a commercial for the Macintosh computer. Ma's Bach recordings were used in a memorial video released by Apple on the first anniversary of Jobs's death.[53]

Ma was a guest on the "Not My Job" segment of Wait Wait... Don't Tell Me! on April 7, 2007, where he won for listener Thad Moore.[54]

On October 27, 2008, Ma appeared as a guest and performer on The Colbert Report.[55] He was also one of the show's guests on November 1, 2011, where he performed songs from crafting an album, The Goat Rodeo Sessions with fellow musicians Stuart Duncan, Edgar Meyer, and Chris Thile.[56] Ma also performed several of Bach's cello suites for the 2012 film Bill W. On October 5, 2015, he appeared on Colbert's new program The Late Show with Stephen Colbert, in support of ballerina Misty Copeland and prematurely celebrating his 60th birthday.

In August 2018, Ma appeared on NPR's Tiny Desk Concerts.[57]

On June 19, 2020, the same group of musicians who recorded The Goat Rodeo Sessions released a second album entitled Not Our First Goat Rodeo.

Ma has performed for a total of eight US Presidents including President John F Kennedy, as a seven year old child prodigy. On January 20, 2021, Ma performed (pre-recorded, due to Covid-19 restrictions) remotely for the inauguration of President Joe Biden.

On June 13, 2021, Ma was the guest on BBC Radio 4's Desert Island Discs.[58] His musical choices included "Tin Tin Deo" by the Oscar Peterson Trio and "Podmoskovnye Vechera - Moscow Nights" by Vasily Solovyov-Sedoi. He selected as his book the 24 volumes of the Encyclopædia Britannica and as his luxury item a Swiss Army knife. He revealed that his career in music felt like a "gift" after scoliosis had threatened to stop him playing in his 20s.[59][60]

Personal lifeEdit

Since 1978, Ma has been married to Jill Hornor, an arts consultant.[61] They have two children, Nicholas and Emily.[10][62] Although he personally considers it the "worst epithet he's ever faced", he was still "tagged" in 2001 as "Sexiest Classical Musician" by People.[63] He has continued to receive such accolades over the years, including from AARP in 2012.[64] He has also been praised as a man of unquestionable character and has been singled out for his humble spirit, self-effacing manner, and humanitarianism.[65]

According to research presented by Henry Louis Gates Jr. for the PBS series Faces of America, a relative had hidden the Ma family genealogy in his home in China to save it from destruction during the Cultural Revolution. His paternal ancestry can be traced back eighteen generations to the year 1217. This genealogy had been compiled in the 18th century by an ancestor, tracing everyone with the surname Ma, through the paternal line, back to one common ancestor in the 3rd century BC. Ma's generation name, Yo, had been decided by his fourth great grand-uncle, Ma Ji Cang, in 1755.[66][67]


Ma's albums include recordings of cello concertos (including, among others, Shostakovich, Brahms, Elgar, and Haydn), sonatas for cello and piano, Bach's cello suites, and a variety of chamber music. He has also recorded in non-classical styles, notably in collaboration with Bobby McFerrin, Chris Botti, Carlos Santana and James Taylor.[68][69]

Awards and recognitionEdit

Grammy Award

Grammy Award for Best Chamber Music Performance:

  • 1986 Brahms: Cello and Piano Sonatas in E Minor Op. 38, and F Op. 99 (RCA 17022)
  • 1987 Beethoven: Cello and Piano Sonata No. 4 in C & Variations (CBS 42121)
  • 1992 Brahms: Piano Quartets Op. 25, Op. 26 (Sony 45846)
  • 1993 Brahms: Sonatas for Cello & Piano (Sony 48191)
  • 1996 Brahms/Beethoven/Mozart: Clarinet Trios (Sony 57499)

Grammy Award for Best Instrumental Soloist(s) Performance:

  • 1990 Barber: Cello Concerto, Op. 22/Britten: Symphony for Cello and Orchestra, Op. 68 (CBS 44900)
  • 1993 Prokofiev: Sinfonia Concertante/Tchaikovsky: Variations on a Rococo Theme (Sony 48382)
  • 1995 The New York Album – Works of Albert, Bartók & Bloch (Sony 57961)
  • 1998 Yo-Yo Ma Premieres – Danielpour, Kirchner, Rouse (Sony Classical 66299)

Grammy Award for Best Instrumental Soloist Performance:

  • 1985 Bach: The Unaccompanied Cello Suites (CBS 37867)

Grammy Award for Best Classical Contemporary Composition:

Grammy Award for Best Classical Album:

  • 1998 Yo-Yo Ma Premieres – Danielpour, Kirchner, Rouse (Sony Classical 66299)

Grammy Award for Best Classical Crossover Album:

Grammy Award for Best Folk Album:

Grammy Award for Best World Music Album:



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External linksEdit