On March 8, 2020, Yo-Yo Ma was at Carnegie Hall giving a chamber music performance with two old friends, the pianist Emanuel Ax and the violinist Leonidas Kavakos. All three soloists travel constantly, and they were thrilled to be reunited. Hugs flew freely that day; neither Ma nor Kavakos had quite gotten their minds around the public health emergency about to descend. They noticed Ax, who had recently been to Italy — then ground zero of the pandemic — was being curiously generous with his applications of Purell.
After the concert, a scientist friend “read us the riot act” about taking coronavirus seriously, Ma says. Despite being the most famous classical musician on the planet, he frequently takes Amtrak between New York and Boston, en route to his Cambridge home. Yet the day after the concert, he and his wife traveled home by car.
Not long afterward at his business office in an Arlington office building, Ma discussed the looming crisis with his team, a small group that helps manage his concert life and projects across the globe. They wondered whether they should close the office for a few days. They also discussed recording some music for the areas most hard hit by the virus. Ma had not been expecting to perform that day, but he happened to have one of his cellos with him. “I’ll just play a few things right here,” he said to a colleague, “just take out your smartphone.”
Unceremoniously seated in an office chair in front of a bare beige wall, Ma then eased into “Going Home,” based on a melody from Dvorak’s “New World” Symphony. He closed his eyes, sank his bow deeply into the strings, and leaned his body into the sound as Dvorak’s wistful melody emerged in deep breathing, richly harmonized phrases. The music did not come across as refined or decorative but rather as earthy, compassionate, and wise.
Not long after he played “Going Home,” going home — and staying home — was in fact what everyone did. As lockdown orders went into effect, Ma did not see his colleagues for the next four months. The Dvorak video, meanwhile, posted on YouTube on March 13, has been viewed over 440,000 times. It became just one of many early offerings in Ma’s #SongsofComfort project that has now spread across six continents, and spurred an Internet phenomenon, with musicians around the world posting their own tokens of sonic solace under the hashtag.
Beneath that first Dvorak video, the YouTube comment thread — not a space typically known for displays of human kindness — offers a glimpse of how the cellist’s playing has been recently received. “Thank God for this man’s existence,” wrote one commenter. Another listener took the notion of home rather literally, asking, “Can I move into this cello???” A third comfort seeker posted a simple observation: “It’s as if he’s sending all of his positive energy into the cosmos.”
Eleven months after that initial video, as the national death toll surpasses 4,000 per day, Yo-Yo Ma has sustained his song of comfort, his transmissions of positive energy, and his cello sound so deep and welcoming that large portions of a stir crazy America may be just about ready to move in.
WATCH THE “GOING HOME” VIDEO
Ma has also played for medical first responders, for doctors on grand rounds, and for COVID patients in intensive care, all while attempting to avoid the media spotlight. He has toured the Berkshires with Emanuel Ax on the back of a flatbed truck, playing on a weather-resistant carbon fiber cello for UPS workers and other essential employees. He’s performed for President Biden’s inauguration, and for the quarantined masses over every imaginable medium. In the process, Ma has clearly emerged as the face of classical music’s response to the pandemic, yet his presence has also served as a reminder of the art form’s more elemental roles: in illuminating darkness, honoring grief, conveying fugitive moments of joy, and helping isolated souls reach across their disparate solitudes.
In a way, while the pandemic’s disruptions have left many feeling plunged into completely unknown terrain, Ma had been preparing for this moment his entire life. “Art is not for art’s sake,” he says. “Well, it could be. But really, it’s for life’s sake.”
On a recent winter morning, Ma and I met via Zoom for an interview from his home in Cambridge. Wearing a zip-up sweater, and speaking from his living room, he exuded a relaxed sense of contentment. Small wonder. Over his 42 years of marriage, Ma tells me, he’s been away from home for some eight months of every year. When his son, Nicholas, now in his 30s, was a young boy, he thought his father actually worked at Logan Airport. Now Ma gets to see his wife, Jill, every day. Ironically, he has noted, the same event that has completely alienated most people from their daily routines has actually made Ma feel, perhaps for the very first time, like he leads a “normal life.”
That is, up to a point. He is still Yo-Yo Ma, and this morning, Beethoven is on his mind. He and Ax were about to perform the complete Beethoven Cello Sonatas at GBH’s Fraser Performance Studio. “I want to try this on you and ask what you think,” he says. He goes on to speak about the ethical vision in Beethoven’s music, a sense of “reaching out for something that was almost attainable,” the possibility for a more fair and just society that, in Beethoven’s day, still glittered beckoningly on the horizon. Two world wars, he continues, shattered that vision and showed us “that the veneer of civilization was really just a veneer.” These days, he says, the ethical striving and idealism still present in Beethoven’s music all too rarely find an echo in our contemporary world.
“But,” ever the optimist, Ma continues, “with the new tools and understanding we have, could there be a more hopeful humanistic philosophy, or a way of thinking that can unite us and propel us forward, maybe not to the same utopian ideal but at least toward being in balance between ourselves and our planet?”
This is not how most musicians typically begin an interview. Ma’s mind is a vast storehouse of ideas, associations, curiosities, streams of thought. “When you ask Yo-Yo a question, his brain comes up simultaneously with 100 different ways of answering,” says Sara Wolfensohn, an old friend.
“I need to be fed ideas,” Ma tells me, though he’s also got a lot of his own. He thinks knowledge is overly siloed in today’s world. He wants to put science back in conversation with the arts. He loves the concept in ecology of the “edge effect,” the notion that biodiversity is richest at the borderline between two ecosystems, and he frequently employs it as a metaphor. He also wants culture to play a more central role in society as a gateway to things our country appears to be decidedly lacking at the moment: trust, empathy, and humility. He views all three as critical to the world’s thriving into the future. And these days, he explains, he is often thinking generationally, both about the limits of his own and the birth of the next.
“I’m about to become a grandfather for the third time,” Ma says, his face widening into that smile that routinely warms the chilliest of concert halls. “And I know that while I’m not going to see the year 2100,” he continues, “someone very close to me probably will. But what is that world going to be like? What is my part in handing them whatever I’ve been responsible for, and what are they going to think about it? These are not abstract questions to me anymore. They’re real questions. Pre-pandemic, the big frustration was that we were spending the great majority of our time producing things,” he adds. “Now I think so much more about meaning and purpose.”
It’s also safe to say that Ma — before the pandemic, too — had thought about these topics once or twice. At-home viewers of the videos he has been creating from his living room can sometimes spot, behind Ma’s right shoulder, a picture of his hero, the legendary Catalan cellist Pablo Casals. The image is framed next to a quote from Casals that Ma has always prized: “I am a man first, an artist second. As a man, my first obligation is to the welfare of my fellow men. I will endeavor to meet this obligation through music — the means which God has given me — since it transcends language, politics and national boundaries. My contribution to world peace may be small, but at least I will have given all I can to an ideal I hold sacred.”
From the perspective of the classical music world today, Casals’s sentiment may sound decidedly old-fashioned. In their own era, men like Casals and Leonard Bernstein had political and social visions, and they spoke beyond classical audiences to address a wider public (John F. Kennedy once said that Bernstein was the only man he “would never run against for political office”). But as the field’s share of prestige in the culture at large has shrunk, so too has the ethical purview of its leading voices. These days, the field’s stars tend to traffic within a more circumscribed cultural sphere, even as they try, when possible, to expand the music’s reach.
Ma takes a different tack. In normal seasons, he still makes plenty of appearances with orchestras around the world and performs dozens of solo recitals. When the pandemic hit, he was just part way through his Bach Project, a two-year voyage that involved recording the Bach Cello Suites for the third and final time, and performing them in 36 concerts across six continents. But in each location, from Dakar to Denver, Medellín to Melbourne, Taipei to Texas, Ma’s visit did not end with his performance; each concert was also paired with what he calls a “day of action,” in which he partnered with local artists or community organizations for activities and public discussions, different in each location, that spotlighted local problems — from food insecurity to indigenous rights — and also celebrated culture itself as an agent of social change. “It was an experiment in listening to local people, and what they do with culture,” Ma says.
It was also classic Ma. He is a musician for whom “pure” music-making has always been in tension with — or some might say, expanded by — other goals: using music as a means to an end, as a passport to other cultures, as a way of forging connections, building communities and healing wounds, including possibly his own. As a child prodigy living a secluded and protected life in New York, Ma was once brought to play for Casals, who was by that point an older sage-like figure. Ma says he can’t remember what Casals thought about his cello performance that day. But he does recall that Casals had some advice for his parents: Let Yo-Yo go outside more, let him play in the street. Ma needed exposure to the world as much as he needed immersion in his art. Later in life, he would make up for lost time.
Ma was born in Paris in 1955. His father, Hiao-Tsiun Ma, was a violinist and a gifted teacher who had left his native China some two decades earlier to continue his studies in France. With his father’s early tutelage in the context of a strictly traditional home, both Yo-Yo and his sister, Yeou-Cheng Ma, developed their talents rapidly from a very young age. A self-described “pipsqueak of a kid,” Ma started cello at age 4 and by one year later, he could play some of Bach’s Cello Suites while sitting on three phone books. By 7, the entire family had moved to New York, where Hiao-Tsiun founded the Children’s Orchestra Society. (The orchestra is now directed by Yeou-Cheng, who also works as a developmental pediatrician.)
That same year they arrived in America, Yo-Yo and his sister were featured guests at a Washington, D.C., benefit for what later became the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts. After being glowingly introduced by Leonard Bernstein, they gave a brief performance as part of a program that included contributions from Robert Frost, Marian Anderson, Harry Belafonte, and Van Cliburn. Seated in the audience were Presidents Kennedy and Eisenhower. Yet the person Ma remembers most from the event was the actor Danny Kaye. Why? Kaye had bent down to meet Ma eye-to-eye when they spoke. “He came down to my level, in order to be an equal,” Ma once recalled. “He extended himself, met me at the crucial edge that divides adult from child, and he won my heart. I subliminally internalized that gesture and that attitude, and I’ve tried to be mindful of this in everything I do — to meet people at eye level, at the edge that divides one person from another.”
Ma continued his cello studies at Juilliard with the distinguished soloist and teacher Leonard Rose, and graduated from high school at age 15. Many in this position would continue straight into a conservatory degree and then onward into competitions and the launching of their careers, but Ma instead made the choice to get a broader education. In 1972, all of 16 years old, he arrived on the campus of Harvard University.
At Harvard, Ma could finally give his curiosity free rein and he took a wide range of liberal arts courses while anchoring himself in the music department. He delighted in venturing into fields he knew nothing about, from astronomy to Russian literature. And because his musical gifts had marked him as special his entire life, he also appreciated the anonymity he could find in classes where his own reputation did not precede him. Among his favorites was an anthropology course taught by a professor named Irven DeVore.
But Ma could only remain incognito for so long. When he performed a recital on campus as a freshman, DeVore happened to be in attendance. The next day, as the professor later recalled for a Harvard Magazine article, he opened his class with a brief speech: " ‘I know that the prestige of this University tends to focus on the accomplishments of our athletes, who this year, bless them, are doing superbly. But I want to tell you that last night I heard a Harvard freshman play the cello, and his expertise puts any athlete in the shade, and far exceeds that of the acknowledged master of his field, Pablo Casals. That freshman is sitting right up there.’ I pointed to Yo-Yo, and the poor guy turned purple.”
Whatever embarrassment it provided Ma along the way, DeVore’s class also proved to be a revelation. The violinist Lynn Chang, who played in a trio with Ma at Harvard and has remained a close friend since, recalls Ma one day arriving at lunch with his face aglow. “I had never seen him so wide-eyed and giddy,” Chang says. DeVore had just shown Ma’s class a film of a trance dance performed by the San peoples (then often referred to as the “Bushmen”) of the Kalahari Desert. Something about their music had captured Ma’s imagination — its sound, but also perhaps subliminally, how their music functioned not as a decorative ornament but as a vital force within the ritual and spiritual life of an entire community. “These Bushmen,” Ma told Chang, “they were singing and dancing, and it was the most unbelievable thing I’ve ever seen.”
During the same period, Ma himself had also begun a process of introspection, prompted in part by the prodding of the eminent composer Leon Kirchner, who became Ma’s mentor at Harvard. “I was always telling Yo-Yo that he didn’t have the true center of his tone yet,” Kirchner later recalled, “meaning there was something more spiritual, the center of his person, of his being, that was not coming through yet.”
Before his center could come through, however, Ma had to find it himself.
Ma’s father lived in Paris during World War II, at a time when the city imposed blackouts at night as a precaution against air raids. During the daytime, Hiao-Tsiun Ma would memorize movements from Bach’s sonatas and partitas for solo violin. These are works of spare and noble beauty, studies in the solitary sublime. At night, standing alone in his garret, Hiao-Tsiun would play what he had just memorized, floating Bach’s music out into the darkness.
Decades later, Ma’s father recommended that Ma adopt the same type of nightly practice with Bach’s Cello Suites, a kindred set of six extraordinary works for solo cello. The Suites became the repertoire closest to Ma’s heart, works he feels are capable of conveying the entire spectrum of human emotion, music akin to a diary of the soul. “I know my greatest joy as a musician,” Ma has said, “when I am playing a concert dedicated exclusively to Bach.” In this sense, there was an unbroken continuity between father and son, yet, in other ways, Ma wrestled with finding an authentic relationship to his own success.
“When you grow up with something, you kind of don’t make a choice,” he once explained. “I never committed to being a musician. I just did it.”
And for the first three decades of his life, the prodigiousness of Ma’s gift meant that “just doing it” was more than enough. By his early 30s, he had risen to the pinnacle of his profession, and was already a household name for concert-goers around the world. Yet despite the clarity of this early success, what exactly Ma should do next was not obvious, at least to him. The standard repertoire of cello concertos is actually quite small. Would he spend the rest of his life simply cycling through this handful of pieces, spicing things up with some occasional chamber music? If not, what would be his next challenge? How would he continue feeding his own art? And despite his swift ascent, he may still have wondered, had he ever really found that elusive “true center of his tone” that Kirchner had called for?
“For a long time,” he confessed in a 1989 New Yorker profile, “I fretted over the conflicting messages coming from within, from parents, from school, from career. I disliked myself intensely. I felt as though I were living someone else’s life, someone else’s dream. I felt I should be doing almost anything other than playing the cello. Friends . . . would tell me to stop pretending that my career in music only interfered with what would otherwise be an ideal life. It’s only recently that I’ve begun to take hold of my energy and commitments and say to myself, ‘Wait a minute, this is actually my own life’ . . . [and] I’m really happy to be a cellist.”
If taking ownership of his narrative did not at first yield answers for Ma, by the early 1990s it had at least given him the confidence to drastically widen the search. The San music and dance from the Kalahari had somehow remained with Ma ever since he heard it as an undergraduate some 20 years earlier. So off he went to seek its secrets, with his cello, a translator, and a film crew in tow. The resulting documentary, Distant Echoes, is fascinating not just for the sights and sounds it captures but as a window into Ma’s own evolution as an artist. “My name is Yo-Yo Ma,” he says in the opening voice-over. “I’m a cellist and for me, music-making is a formal thing.”
The film juxtaposes that formality with the intimate communal settings in which the San music, as Ma puts it, is not performed but “just happens.” The San instruments themselves, Ma explains, are not highly valued art objects but rather functional means to an end, tools that can be fashioned from everyday objects — we see one string instrument, for instance, that uses an old oil can as a resonator. In the film, Ma says he felt awkward sharing his own music in such an unfamiliar setting but nevertheless, in one scene, with the village members gathered around him, the cellist sits on a milk crate, digs his cello’s endpin into the desert sand, and launches into a performance of Bach’s G-Major Prelude, all while wearing an impossibly well-pressed Oxford shirt.
At the film’s climax, Ma observes a trance dance, which he describes as one of the oldest human rituals in the world, and as a pinnacle of the San people’s “collective music-making, a synthesis of their music, their beliefs, and their medicine.” The film shows the community seated around a fire at night, clapping and singing, with musicians dancing ecstatically in the center. Ma explains that the dance is about communing with ancient animal spirits. The camera catches Ma seated in a back row, at that edge where two cultural ecosystems meet. As the dancers trace circles in the sand, Ma claps and sways, his glasses briefly catching the reflection of the fire.
Later, Ma asked the San leaders why they do their trance dance. They gave Ma an answer that, decades after his trip, remained with him: “Because it gives us meaning.”
Artistic paths rarely follow a straight line. In Ma’s case, one can’t say exactly what led to what, nor is he in a rush to tell you. But in the years following his trip to the Kalahari Desert, Ma began authoring new scripts for building a life of meaning in music. Genre demarcations, which had long been the guardrails of his path through music, suddenly seemed less relevant. While he continued his concerto appearances and solo work, Ma was also suddenly playing the tangos of Astor Piazzolla, and then recording a bluegrass-inflected album, Appalachia Waltz, with the fiddle player Mark O’Connor and bassist Edgar Meyer. Music-making was, in short, becoming less of “a formal thing.” And perhaps the San notion of an instrument being little more than a means to an end had also seeped in somewhere. Around this time, Ma absentmindedly left his $2.5 million Montagnana cello in the trunk of a New York City taxi. (It was recovered.)
Even as he ventured musically further afield, the Bach suites remained Ma’s magnetic north. But he no longer felt compelled to plumb their mystery as part of a solitary quest, choosing instead, in the late 1990s, to work with six directors to create a series of six films, each inspired by one of the suites. Then in 2000, Ma founded Silkroad, a global collective of musicians inspired by the cross-cultural connections that flourished in the lands along the ancient Silk Road trading route. The attacks of September 11, 2001, and the waves of xenophobia that followed, seemed only to reinforce the need for listening across cultures. Headquartered in Boston, Silkroad is still thriving some two decades later.
According to friends, in parallel with Ma’s musical transformations of the 1990s, came a second transformation in his social awareness. The Boston-based pediatrician and violinist Dr. Lisa Wong, a friend of Ma’s from his Harvard days, recalled Ma appearing at a two-day symposium she had co-organized about the physician and humanitarian Albert Schweitzer. In his comments at the event, Ma explained that “faith, healing, and service are so much what I think a musician should strive for. Just as the physician tries to heal the body, the musician tries to address the soul.” He added: “Lately at my concerts, if I am nervous I try to tell myself that I’m not there to prove anything, I’m not there to impress people. I’m there to serve. I’m there to communicate something I really believe in.”
The Schweitzer symposium culminated in a free concert for which special sections of seats had been reserved for, among others groups, members of the city’s homeless population as well as survivors of domestic violence. But on the night of the concert, when the house lights were about to go down, Ma and Wong were confronted with the stark sight of empty seats in those two particular sections. The homeless people, it turned out, had not come because they needed to secure their beds for the night in shelters. The survivors of domestic violence had stayed away because they did not want to be identified as survivors in public.
“That was a pivotal moment,” Wong says. “We realized we had a blind spot — we had not been meeting these groups where they were at.” Wong says Ma seemed to learn from this event, and began changing his own approach to engaging with groups at the margins. He began to seek them out, for instance, by inviting homeless people from shelters in the places he visited to meet with him before his concerts. And, says Wong, he began asking what they needed.
Three decades later, Ma is now well practiced at seeking out what’s needed. Over the course of the last year, in addition to the recorded videos, the live-streamed performances, and the tour on the flatbed truck, he has released a new album, Songs of Comfort and Hope, with pianist Kathryn Stott, and he has brought his ideas on music and healing directly to the source by performing over Zoom in hospitals. Among the communities Ma has played for privately several times are front-line health care workers at Massachusetts General Hospital.
“It was a time of tremendous anxiety and unbelievable stress,” says Dr. Kathy May Tran, a hospitalist at Mass. General who coordinated his first performance in May for roughly 200 health care workers. “But the chance to connect over music, together with Yo-Yo’s words of care and support, and just the priority of gratitude that he embodies, were restorative to our entire community and gave us the strength to continue. That sounds corny, but it’s completely true.”
Since the pandemic began, Ma has also become involved with a national nonprofit called Project: Music Heals Us, which arranges virtual private concerts for hospital patients. The group to date has connected 161 musicians from across the country with over 3,100 patients in 23 hospitals, many of whom are severely isolated from family and even from most hospital staff due to COVID protocols. The contributing musicians come from all corners of the profession, though it’s fair to say not many are internationally renowned soloists. At one point, project organizers say, a patient at Houston Methodist hospital told his physical therapist that later in the day he would be receiving a private performance from Yo-Yo Ma. The clinician responded by noting that the patient was apparently suffering from delusions, only to later enter the ICU and find that Yo-Yo Ma was indeed there on an iPad, giving a private performance of the Shaker hymn “Simple Gifts.”
“Musicians like Yo-Yo and many others could have taken the path of least resistance and easily avoided the pandemic altogether,” Dr. Tran says. “Instead, they chose to walk into it head on. In medicine and science, there is the concept of a catalyst, an entity or substance that creates a chemical reaction that can be lasting, permanent, transformative. During this pandemic, Yo-Yo has been a catalyst.”
In public settings, back when there were public settings, Ma likes to tell a joke: “A 6-year-old boy tells his father, ‘When I grow up I want to be a musician.’ The father looks at the son, shakes his head sadly, and says, ‘I’m sorry son, you can’t do both.’”
People typically laugh and Ma moves on. But the punch line also catches in the ear perhaps because of how precisely it seems to turn Ma’s own early life on its head. When Ma was 6, he was already a serious musician — if also one who may have dreamed of becoming a child.
Yet the ultimate rejoinder to the father of the joke may be Ma’s own attitude today. He has become the musician he is in part by declining to fully accede to the whole growing up part, or at least its most onerous aspects. Even when involved with the most weighty of his projects, Ma seems to maintain a certain lightness of being. “He’s preserved that sense of a beginner’s mind,” says his longtime friend Dr. Richard Kogan. “It also stands out that, compared with many others, he’s never become jaded.”
Ax agrees: “It’s one of the most endearing qualities about him. He manages to do very serious things while not taking himself very seriously.” As if to illustrate the point, in Chicago, Ma once participated in an elevated public discussion on music and civic life. Moments before he took the stage someone snapped a photo of him, lying in a suit and tie on the bathroom floor with a wombat.
“There’s no attitude, no edge. He doesn’t think of himself as a star,” says Anthony Rudel, general manager for music at GBH. “I think he sees himself as a guy with a cello.”
Back in our Zoom interview, the hour has grown late and Ma has grown introspective. “We’re a country that was invented by a group of very smart people,” he says. “We’re living the American experiment, and we want the experiment to succeed and thrive. We want homo sapiens to thrive and survive. I ask myself, What does a 65-year-old do next? I want to be useful, I want to respond to need. I want to try, in whatever years I have, to do things with as much meaning and impact as possible.”
The questioning might imply that an answer would involve a departure from his recent roles, and it’s true that Ma has rarely stayed in one place, artistic or geographic, for long. But it also depends on one’s vantage point. Pull back the camera on his journey and one begins to see not wanderings but through-lines, as even Ma seems to concede. “My interests have always started with people,” he says. “Who they are, why they think and do what they do.”
That observation surely applies to Ma’s music as well. The most powerful performers have an almost mystical way of blurring the lines between interpreting and creating. They attempt to inhabit the composer’s way of seeing. To do so, Ma once said, “One must go out of oneself, finding empathy for another’s experience, forming another world.”
The key word here is empathy. It is what bridges Ma’s work as a musician and his social consciousness. Returning to the composer Leon Kirchner’s challenge, one might say empathy is the true center of Ma’s tone. And yes, he’s found it. And built on it his life.