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Saturday, August 13, 2011

Yo-Yo Ma Interview 2000

Ran: 12/1/00 on
Head: Yo-Yo Ma Bridges Musical Worlds

Yo-Yo Ma is a supremely talented cellist who has achieved crossover popularity without compromising his music principles or even standards of good taste. Fluent in the warhorses of the standard repertoire (concertos, chamber music, and solo), contemporary composers both challenging and ingratiating, and Baroque music, he's even successfully tackled such far-flung genres as tango, bluegrass, and various Asian styles. Ma's discography is approaching 50 albums, and he's won 13 Grammy awards. His popularity is such that even in this current profit-driven corporate period, Sony allows him considerable leeway.

Ma's ability to bring great music to the masses is epitomized by his upcoming appearance on the December 13 episode of the TV series The West Wing -- more than a cameo, as he'll be in several scenes -- that will find him playing Bach's Suite in G major for solo cello to probably its largest single audience ever.

The friendly, thoughtful, soft-spoken Ma spoke with CDNOW as part of the promotional effort for the latest release to feature him, Tan Dun's soundtrack to the acclaimed Ang Lee film Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, discussing not only recent projects but more philosophical issues.

CDNOW: You are involved in such a wide variety of music, yet you always seem comfortable in any context.

Yo-Yo Ma: For me, the genesis of any sort of organic artistic experience is, you have to start from the inside. It doesn't matter what part of the inside, but just from the inside, because only from there can you then grow organically and perceive something. And we all know people who are always looking at something from the outside, who can't get in there. You can surround the thing that you're looking at with so many things on the outside, you never find your way in -- it's always a foreign experience. The only way to make it part of you is to actually jump in.

How about music that's more abstract? Say, 12-tone music.

Twelve-tone music is a methodology that people compose in. In one of Schoenberg's piano concertos, it's a waltz, a 12-tone waltz, so he went into it in that way. I mean, there's always a way to do it. And you always know that there're things that you don't understand, but also know that as time marches on, there's the possibility that one day you might understand. And only when I start to understand can I actually advocate for something.

When I was 15 I had just given a recital, spent a year working on it, and just the next lesson Leonard Rose says, "Here's this late Beethoven sonata, and I'm not going to tell you anything about it. You just go and work on it and play it." So I did. I thought it was beautiful, but I couldn't find my way in. It wasn't until three or four years later in college that somehow I figured out one thing about that piece, which was that there was no sort of actual tonic cadence for the longest time. And just that one thing got me into sort of, this is, "Oh so that's what he's fooling around with, that's what he's dealing with." 'Cause it's sort of like swimming around tonic-dominant, but you don't know what to grab for. So that's an abstract concept, it's the denial of something.

You studied with Leonard Rose for quite a while, starting when you were around seven?

Age of nine.

Is there anything in particular, beyond just specific techniques of playing, that you took away from that experience?

Love and patience. He was a great cellist, of course, a master, a great musician, all of that. He was so kind, he was so gentle, he was so loving. And that's what stays with you. And specific things such as, after this recital, he would say -- and later on, when we did some mentor-and-protégé talks and stuff like that -- where he would articulate and say, one of the most important parts of being a teacher is to say to a student when you have to learn to teach yourself, you've got to fly on your own. And he stayed a friend and mentor all the rest of his life, for which I'm very grateful -- but I think [of] the patience and love, and saying, "I know you can do it." I tell you, that kind of positive --you know, with high standards -- nurturing was so important. Because if he had said to me, "I think you stink. You'll never make it," I know that it would be totally devastating to me, and I probably would not have had the courage to go do a lot of things that I went and did later on because I felt supported. Someone believed in me.

Emanuel Ax went to Columbia, you went to Harvard. Did the Ivy League connection have anything to do with you guys hooking up, or perhaps on a different level, the fact that you have relate so well?

That has something to do with it. I think there are a number of factors that made us friends and made us want to work together over such a long period of time. One of them is that we were born in another country other than the United States. He was born in Lwow, which was part of the Soviet Union, Poland, and the Austro-Hungarian Empire at various times, so he understands what it's like to be on the inside and on the outside of cultures. [He] then went to Winnipeg, then went to New York. I was born in Paris, my parents are Chinese, I lived in New York, now I live in Boston. So we have that kind of immigrant, newly arrived kind of background.

Manny's one of the most loyal people I've ever met, a loyal friend, and that's very important. And I think rather than the goal, the process is very important to us, how we get there is extremely important. And that probably is the most important thing to us. And the fact that we both have families, and that we've talked so much about the struggle of, you know, just touring while trying to keep some semblance of regular life, and what we do without children and all that, similar goals for family, emphasis on nurturing and education, but not kind of sitting down on our kids so much that it stifles their growth, but then a sense of humor. You know, all of those things I think help, and I think the schooling, yes. Manny actually writes very well. I don't, but I admire the fact that he was able to do that, study French at Columbia, and yeah, these things do keep us going strong.

Your involvement in the soundtrack for Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon presumably came about through Tan Dun. Was there any different approach because it's a soundtrack?

Well, I love Tan Dun. I love what he does and have great sympathy for it, for his music. We had worked together once before on a piece called Symphony 1997 and recorded somewhat the same ways. This was done in the studio, cello/voice alone and then afterwards he went and put it all together. Because I have sympathy for his music -- I think this only could have worked under those circumstances, I knew he's a great melodist, he's a very evocative, a very theatrical composer, and I said, "Look, you've gotta tell me, even though it's not quite written yet, what you're thinking of so that at least I can go there with you in an imaginative way."

And Ang Lee was also there, and so he was able to give his input after years of shooting, sometimes under incredibly difficult circumstances. I hadn't seen the film, saw little snippets of it, but he could give a sense of what he needed. And so in that studio on that evening, we were able to put together, hopefully, what was a form of expression that matched with what I knew of Tan Dun's work and what he was still to imagine, what was gonna be done later on, with what Ang Lee and James Schamus had been thinking of for years and what that was gonna be like. It was actually a fascinating meeting. I treasure that moment, those late hours in the night [laughs] when we were recording. And of course when I saw the film, I saw what a magnificent job they did.

Are there any particular qualities in John Corigliano's music that prompted you to commission Phantasmagoria?

I've known John forever, and the pieces he's written -- his Symphony, Violin Concerto -- and this is before Red Violin -- and also of his Dad and, you know, the New York Philharmonic. All of that stuff was always percolating. I was thinking it would be really neat to get him to write a piece. And the occasion came when there was a new auditorium that was opening at the Freer-Sackler Gallery at the Smithsonian. And somehow the person who dedicated the auditorium was very much involved in music and wanted to commission a piece, and that's how it came about. I was very happy that he took that music from his opera, The Ghosts of Versailles, and kind of made an instrumental short version of that piece.

Do you think that one of the reasons that it works is that the cello is so close to the human voice and it's operatic music?

That could be one reason, but I think John is so knowledgeable on all kinds of instrumentation that it's, that, you know, he could've made anything work. I of course would like to think that it's because of the cello that it works! [laughs]

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