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Reflections on Yo-Yo Ma's 60th

Oct 22, 2015

The most impressive thing about Yo-Yo Ma is the way he has handled himself artistically since becoming a global superstar.

Cellist Yo-Yo Ma turned 60 the other day.

That’s as good a reason as any to reflect for a moment on a life and career that seems about as well executed as that of any classical performing artist in our time, maybe ever.

If those words sound overblown, let’s think about the particulars:

Ma has, man and boy, been in the public spotlight for almost all of those 60 years. Indeed, thanks to the wonder of YouTube, we can now replay the moment at which the young prodigy first stepped into the spotlight on a 1962 TV program hosted by Leonard Bernstein, with President Kennedy and a host of celebrities in attendance.

Ma, looking much more serious than he would as an adult performer, was accompanied on piano by his older sister Yeou-Cheng. He was seven. Two years later, he made his Carnegie Hall debut.

As he moved along, he won the predicted fistful of awards and prizes, earned a degree from Harvard, appeared on “Sesame Street,” etc., etc.

But the most impressive thing about Yo-Yo Ma is the way he has handled himself artistically since becoming a global superstar.

Think about how easy it would have been for him to make his way from one lucrative concerto date to the next, playing Dvorak and Elgar and Tchaikovsky, and knocking out the occasional album of standard sonatas and crowd-pleasing encore pieces, with perhaps the obligatory “crossover” disc of songbook standards thrown in here and there.

There would have been nothing reprehensible about such a career, of course, and we can all think of substantial artists who have more or less signed on to that model.

Yo-Yo Ma performs at the White House in 1987 for President Ronald Reagan, Crown Princess Michiko and Crown Prince Akihito of Japan, and Nancy Reagan.
Credit White House photo

But Ma has had other ideas, literally.

The recordings are a good indicator: some 90 albums (17 of which, thus far, have won Grammys) covering about as wide a range of musical territory as a single human being could conceivably traverse, and taking many serious artistic chances along the way.

His several Appalachian and/or bluegrass-themed discs, for example, featuring collaborators like Edgar Meyer and Chris Thile, initially were sniffed at by critics and classical guardians. The feeling, I guess, was that a Parisian-born Chinese American had best not be attempting American roots music.

Most of the sniffing has been called off in recent years, as everybody has come to realize that the discs represent an entirely authentic, and even important, attempt to embrace and also expand those roots traditions.

He has gone out of his way to champion contemporary music of all stripes, much to the irritation, I’m sure, of his various record label executives.

And, of course, his boundary-crossing (literally) Silk Road Project – an ongoing vehicle for exploring Eurasian music and culture along the ancient Silk Road trade route – has been one of the most visionary arts initiatives of our time.

Beyond all that, he just seems to be a good guy. His amiable, unpretentious, yet intellectually curious disposition has shown us all what being a “serious” musician can mean in our time. He also is everywhere.

Just a couple of weeks ago, in an encouraging sign of what Stephen Colbert is envisioning for his new "Late Show," Ma turned up playing one of the Bach Cello Suites while ballerina Misty Copeland danced an original piece of choreography.

It was a great piece of network TV. It reminded me of a day in 1999, when Ma was in town to play a fundraising concert with the Hartford Symphony. Earlier in the day, Ma was given an honorary degree by Trinity College. At the celebratory lunch, the cellist was haltingly asked by a student at his table why classical music was important.

It was the kind of question that invited a quick boilerplate reply. Instead, Ma put down his utensils, dabbed his face with his linen napkin and sat back in his chair, as if contemplating the issue for the first time.

“Because,” he said after a pause, “it takes us outside of ourselves. And we need to do that.”

Easton. Sheena Easton

Sheena Easton
Credit SheenaEaston.com

Scottish pop diva Sheena Easton is the headliner Saturday night with the Hartford Symphony Pops. The 7:30 pm concert is at the Bushnell’s Belding Theater.

Easton, of course, is best known for having sung the title tune to the 1983 James Bond film “For Your Eyes Only,” composed by Bill Conti. She also had a medium-successful pop hit, the catchy “Morning Train” in 1980, but for some reason that song has virtually disappeared from the airwaves.

Easton will evidently perform some additional Bond themes, which leads us to the important and pressing question:

What are the best title tunes in the Bond series?

By my unofficial count there have been 23 authorized Bond  movies thus far, and each one has had a title song.

Here, in the interest of provoking meaningful breakfast table conversation, are my Top Five:

1. You Only Live Twice – Music by the late, great John Barry, with lyrics by Leslie Bricusse (still with us at 84).

2. Goldfinger – Same team as above, with Anthony Newley assisting on lyrics.

3. Live and Let Die – Officially credited, let it be noted, to Paul and Linda McCartney.

4. Skyfall – Of the more recent examples, this Oscar-winner, sung and co-written by Adele, is the most musically interesting, even if the film itself was a drag.

5. Thunderball – A sleeper, but really, a very slick piece of work. Barry again, with words by Don Black.

Discuss.

Steve Metcalf was The Hartford Courant's Fulltime classical music critic and reporter for over 20 years, beginning in 1982. He is currently the curator of the Richard P. Garmany Chamber Music Series at The Hartt School. He can be reached at spmetcalf55@gmail.com.