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This article by Elaine Strauss was prepared for the January 22, 2003 edition of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.

Following The Silk Road With Yo-Yo Ma

Musically speaking, cellist Yo-Yo Ma is as ubiquitous

as oxygen. His solid base as a classical performer on the recital

soloist — soloist with orchestra — chamber music performer

continuum would be a full plate for most artists. For him, however,

it is merely a starting point.

No single category is large enough to contain his urge to explore.

He has appeared as a bluegrass performer, a purveyor of tangos, and

a willing partner of Bobby McFerrin, whose mouth sounds propel him

into label-defying territory. He has modified his Stradivarius in

order to blend into authentic-instrument performances, and has played

an electric cello in a piece whose scoring included computer instruments.

He can be heard on movie soundtracks.

His Silk Road Project, presently his major outlet, is an umbrella

organization devoted to artistic traditions, primarily music, along

the ancient trade route from Turkey through central Asia to China.

Begun in 1998, it focuses on both traditional and contemporary activities.

The massive undertaking shelters the music of both learned circles

and folk settings.

With all musical routes leading to Ma, tickets for his McCarter appearance

on Friday, January 24, are much desired. McCarter seats 1,000 and

two weeks before the concert the box office already had a waiting

list of over 100.

Taking time off from the Silk Road Project for his Princeton appearance,

Ma collaborates at McCarter with pianist Kathryn Stott in an all-French

recital. The program includes Debussy’s Sonata No. 1 in D minor; Faure’s

Sonata No. 1 in A Major, Op. 13; Messiaen’s "In Praise of the

Eternity of Jesus" from his "Quartet from the End of Time,"

and Franck’s Sonata in A Major. The two performers collaborated on

a Grammy Award-winning CD, "The Soul of the Tango."

British born and trained, Stott is both a performer and a creator

of music festivals. In recognition of her contributions as a promoter

of French music, the French government appointed her a Chevalier of

the "Ordre des Arts et Lettres."

Yo-Yo Ma was born in Paris in 1955 to Chinese parents.

His cello studies started at age four with his father. His first performance

came at age five. Ma grew up in New York City, where he worked with

Leonard Rose at the Juilliard School. As a Harvard undergraduate anthropology

major, Ma maintained an active concert schedule. His Harvard classmate

Hugh Wolff, formerly artistic director of the New Jersey Symphony

Orchestra, marveled that, given his professional schedule, Ma was

able to pass his courses.

Ma is generally recognized as a warm, responsive, unpretentious person.

Writing in "Strings," Edith Eisler answers the question of

whether Ma is as nice as he seems by saying, "No, much nicer."

His niceness shows up in his view of competitions. He refuses to judge

them. "Every time someone invites me, I say, `I’m sorry, I will

do anything you want with the winners or with the losers, but I will

not be a judge.’" He is sensitive to the uniqueness of individual

musicians and unhappy about the attempt to give credit for particular

aspects of performing. "You have to judge people by points (points

for intonation, for this, for that), and by the time you add them

up, you have taken away the whole idea of something organic; you’ve

just dissected somebody. And I think people who are artistic will

turn a weakness into a strength, and you’ve denied them the chance."

"I lost every competition I ever tried," Ma says. Then he

remembers that he won a competition when he was five.

Ma credits his liberal arts education as the force behind his creation

of the Silk Road Project. "It’s as if everything that I do now

has a reference point to those incredible years when I was stimulated

by anthropology classes, history classes, a broad range of courses

— not just music courses," he says. The remarks appear in

"Along the Silk Road" (2002), a volume he put together with

the Smithsonian Museum’s Freer Gallery of Art and the Arthur M. Sackler


The opening chapter reports a conversation between Ma and ethno-musicologist

Theodore Levin, and the project’s executive director, in which Ma

calls Levin’s book, "The Hundred Thousand Fools of God: Musical

Travels in Central Asia," "one of the inspirational forces"

behind the Silk Road Project. Responding to a question from Levin,

Ma attributes the project’s focus to his visit to the eighth-century

Shosoin collection in Nara, Japan. The collection reflects trade and

cultural exchange between the Mediterranean world and Asia.

Talking about other influences on his work, Ma praises fiddler Mark

O’Connor and bassist Edgar Meyer, who introduced him to Appalachian

music. He tells of abandoning his classical concert-hall habits for

a quicker and more intimate approach under their tutelage. "The

cello is trained to respond but not at the speed that Mark plays.

Now I can get into a fast Texas groove, but I had to make both mental

and physical adjustments to do that."

Having learned Appalachian fiddling, Ma incorporated it into his playing.

"Each time I learn a new style," he says, "I tend to internalize

sounds of that style, which can then appear in my cello playing, as

one more expressive component of musical communication. As a musician,

I feel that one of the things that I do when I perform is bring to

audiences the totality of my experiences." Reviewers hear what

Ma means. Paul Griffiths, writing about a Ma concert in the New York

Times, remarks on the Irish flavor Ma gave to "Seven Tunes Heard

in China" by Chinese composer Bright Sheng, and notes that a piece

by Hungarian composer Kodaly "had the Chinese tone of Mr. Sheng’s


Providing outlets for both the traditional and the contemporary

is an explicit goal of the Silk Road Project, Ma says. "We seem

to have two main jobs — to investigate and give credit to the

past, on the one hand, and then to encourage new kinds of cultural

development, on the other." However, he admits the futility of

attempting to keep tradition and contemporary development separate.

He is respectful of Levin’s interest in preserving the past and asks,

"Do you feel that there is a danger of my appropriating your knowledge

and distorting it because I am a performer and the non-scholarly part

of me will say, I’ll take anything you have and I’ll use it to make

a musical point?"

Levin owns up to some anxiety. "I sometimes worry about this as

a scholar whose first commitment is to try to amplify the voices of

the people for whose music I advocate," he says. "I want to

make sure that their voices are heard and that their ideas about music

are put forward in the ways that they would wish rather than just

have their music used as a resource for other people to make new creations

and sell them in the global marketplace." But Ma is exempt, says

Levin. "I don’t worry about this with you because I trust that

you come to these traditions with a sense of respect and awe and acknowledgment."

The Silk Road Project has so far resulted in two Smithsonian Folkways’

CDs "The Silk Road: A Musical Caravan," and Sony’s "Silk

Road Journeys: When Strangers Meet."

Ma is an exclusive Sony Classical artist. His discography of roughly

50 albums, including 14 Grammy-winners, reflects the diversity of

Ma’s musical interests and displays a chameleon-like spectrum of moods

on the cello. "Classic Yo-Yo" is a comprehensive sampling

of Ma’s material and styles with brief glimpses of his forays into

the baroque, the tango, the American vernacular, a touch of the Far

East, and his collaboration with Bobby McFerrin.

"Yo-Yo Ma Solo" contains compositions for unaccompanied cello;

the three pieces whose styles seemed to influence each other in the

concert reviewed by Paul Griffiths are included. Mark O’Connor’s introspective

"Appalachia Waltz" spreads its mood on Bright Sheng’s "Seven

Tunes Heard in China," with its bent pitches. And "Seven Tunes,"

in turn, infiltrates the syncopated writing of Hungarian Sultan Kodaly.

In "The Soul of the Tango," primarily pieces by Astor Piazzolla,

Ma, having immersed himself in a Latin-American idiom, fills the listener’s

ears with Argentina. Perhaps that Latin influence is at work in "Baroque

I" and "Baroque II," recorded with Ton Koopman and the

Amsterdam Baroque Orchestra. The baroque music swings, taking rhythmic

liberties not often associated with the period, although contemporary

experts considered them a legal move. On this recording Ma adjusts

his intonation to match baroque practice.

Ma finds a link between this baroque practice and the American vernacular

of Mark O’Connor. "In Mark’s playing," he says, "I can

see some baroque elements: bow holds, concepts of sounds, and intonation.

It’s amazing, like hearing old French linguistic forms in Cajun Louisiana,

grammatical elements that have disappeared in France."

"Appalachia Waltz," an album named after the O’Connor piece,

shows Ma in his unadulterated down-home phase. In contrast, "Silk

Road Journeys" covers a vast east-west territory and millennia

of music using both traditional and modern instruments. On this CD,

Ma also plays a Mongolian horsehead fiddle. "This recording,"

he says "is what happened when 24 strangers . . . learned from

each other, and eventually devised a common language that allowed

them to be creative together."

Listening to recordings is a less time-consuming way to view the many

musical hats that Yo-Yo Ma wears than attending the many concerts

that would be necessary. We’re not against live performance —

to the contrary. We’re just being practical. Finding a recording is

just a surer route to the music than finding a ticket to Ma’s McCarter


— Elaine Strauss

Yo-Yo Ma, McCarter Theater, 91 University Place,

609-258-2787. Yo-Yo Ma presents an all-French program with Kathryn

Stott, piano. Sold out. Friday, January 24, 8 p.m.

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