Classic FM Meets Yo-Yo Ma

Yo-Yo Ma’s Vivaldi disc reveals the cellist’s passion for getting under the skin of music’s greatest heroes…

“How are your children – Rupert, Jack and Max?” Classic FM has never met Yo-Yo Ma before and yet here he is, hot off his flight from Munich to Heathrow, standing in arrivals asking after your correspondent’s three children – by name.

Confronted by this fiercely upbeat French/Chinese-New Yorker Classic FM forgives itself a sneaky cynicism as I recall the notes I had to submit about itself before Yo-Yo would consent to our interview.

“He always likes to know a little about his interviewer,” explained the PR. “It helps build trust and communication.” And just maybe gives Yo-Yo an “in”, helping melt the interviewer’s cold, objective heart by giving him the impression this busy artist actually gives a damn?

Trouble is, you can’t be cynical for long about the irrepressible Yo-Yo Ma. Founder of the Silk Road Project, a musical and educational initiative promoting the study of the cultural, artistic and intellectual traditions along the ancient Silk Road route, a non-stop touring artist who claims to have been away from home for 20 out of the past 30 years and with almost 60 CDs to his name, the man’s a phenomenon, the real deal.

As we settle into the back of his chauffered limo (Yo-Yo has made sure his famed Strad cello is secure in the boot) for the cross-town drive to his hotel, from where he’ll prepare for his Barbican concert in the evening with fellow Munich travellers the Amsterdam Baroque Orchestra, I determine to uncover the real Yo-Yo behind the smiley, right-on version alongside me.

He talks quietly and staccato-like in a soft, mid-Atlantic accent, pausing frequently to frame his sentences. Just as his Silk Road Project draws disparate cultural strands together, so his mind seems constantly to be seeking links between life and art to illustrate his points. Communication, sharing, mutual support – these are big themes in Yo-Yo’s life and music…

“Being a great musician comes down to four things: knowing a musical tradition – be it classical, jazz, world or whatever – very deeply, being able to create, being a mentor and being a passionate communicator: all at the same time. Simon Rattle is such a man.

“You can’t mentor unless you’re generous. You can’t communicate if you think you’re at the centre of the world, you can’t create if you’re not open to ideas around you and you can’t know a tradition deeply if you haven’t spent time looking hard at things.”

This obsession with communication and tradition – colleagues have heard Yo-Yo give exactly this speech before – might have its roots in the cellist’s childhood. Born in 1955 to Chinese parents living in Paris, then off to New York at the age of four eventually entering the Juilliard School to study the cello before broadening his horizons with a liberal postgraduate arts education, he’d learned early on how to survive among different people and cultures.

It’s a survival course without end. Take his Silk Road Project, for example. Its inspiration is the ancient trade routes that brought different cultures together. Yo-Yo sees it as a way of understanding these different cultures and celebrating the contribution people and civilisations have made over a long time, and its work is far from over.

“We can easily demonise anybody but people such as musicians work best by building trust with each other. Economic engines can bring us together but we also need cultural engines. A strong cultural engine can tide you over when politics fails. Music is about building trust between people – audiences as well as musicians – through knowledge of each other and participation in each other’s knowledge.”

So that’s why he needed your scribe’s biog…

All this sharing keeps Yo-Yo young: there’s not a line on his face (‘”’m the Dorian Gray of music,” he says, referring to Oscar Wilde’s story of perpetual youth). And now his eagerly enquiring mind has led him to the music of Vivaldi – and more questions.

“I got together with Ton Koopman [the conductor of the Amsterdam Baroque Orchestra, his partners on the new disc] and we agreed we needed to know more about this mysterious man, and the best way was through his music.”

Earlier Yo-Yo had spoken about “going deep into the content, finding out who wrote the music and why.” Classic FM admit to nodding enthusiastically without really understanding but now, as he begins to reveal his knowledge of Vivaldi, it becomes clearer.

“He wrote for individuals, for people with specific musical talents be they violinists, lutenists, singers… Above all, he wasn’t writing for posterity; there is an immediacy to his writing.”

So, Vivaldi, the great musical pragmatist; it’s the key to Vivaldi’s world Yo-Yo was looking for and which, he believes, has given him and collaborator Ton Koopman permission to make their own cello transcriptions of the composer’s music. There are the usual suspects such as the largo violin solo from Winter (The Four Seasons), now mellow and chilled out on Yo-Yo’s cello but also some less familiar delights such as a cello arrangement of Quanto Magis Generosa, previously a part for mezzo from Vivaldi’s oratorio Juditha Triumphans.

“Vivaldi’s music is so unexpectedly beautiful,” says Yo-Yo. “As we go through life we’re constantly renewing ourselves but until recently all we knew of Vivaldi was his Four Seasons. So did we really know him? I don’t think so. With Ton and the ABO I wanted to shed more light on his multi-faceted personality, and I think we’ve succeeded.”

But Yo-Yo’s whistle-stop tour through life means he won’t be hanging out with Vivaldi for long. His next recording project is a disc of Ennio Morricone film music. Cue Clint in a poncho and that plaintive whistle. Now what could Yo-Yo Ma possibly find interesting here? I should have guessed: family life. Let him explain.

“Morricone’s sound is so memorable. It invokes a world of sentiment. It springs from his way of working. He surrounds himself with his musical family: his orchestra, his producer, his sons, one of whom is a successful film composer in his own right. You can feel this whole family culture coming from him and I just think it would be great to focus on what makes this man remarkable.”

If Yo-Yo’s approach to musical projects sounds a bit like, well, the child’s toy whose name he shares, that’s our problem, not his.

“My kids [he has two – Emily, 18, and Nicholas, 21] and their friends don’t burden themselves with the musical barriers my generation inherited. There’s no 20-year-old today who doesn’t love a lot of different music.”

Not that he’s actively encouraged his own children to make a living out of it. Instead, he’s happy they know and understand music as just one part of their literacy, “so they know the vocabulary and can explore the musical world’.

And when the exploring is put on the back burner for a while it’s Bach, his first musical love, that Yo-Yo returns to. Especially around the late 1990s, Yo-Yo had a bit of a thing about the composer, releasing his Inspired By Bach disc and DVD series. Hard to avoid the great man, really; his suites must be hard-wired into every cellist.

Yo-Yo doesn’t disagree, and in his explanation of Bach’s magic he is at his most eloquent: “He is this mix of total objectivity and total subjectivity. He holds you at arm’s length but he feels your pain. All the DNA of humanity – what we’re capable of – is in his music.”

It’s tempting to apply the same thinking to Yo-Yo himself. All the DNA of a great musician is contained within him – the creator, the communicator, the mentor, the respecter of cultures. And that’s true whether he enquires after the health of your kids, or not.