Yo-Yo Ma opens JFK exhibition, 60 years after he performed as a child for the late President

22 November 2022, 17:31 | Updated: 22 November 2022, 17:49

Yo-Yo Ma in 1962 and 2022 playing in honour of President John F. Kennedy
Yo-Yo Ma in 1962 and 2022 playing in honour of President John F. Kennedy. Picture: YouTube Kennedy Center / Scott Suchman

By Sophia Alexandra Hall

60 years ago this month, Yo-Yo Ma gave his first high-profile performance aged seven, in front of President John F. Kennedy. In 2022, he returned to the Kennedy Center to honour the late American politician.

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The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts sits in the heart of Washington D.C., the capital city and federal district of the United States.

American President John F. Kennedy was assassinated 59 years ago today on 22 November 1963. Eight years later, the Kennedy Center opened, and over the last 50 years has developed an international reputation for excellence across the arts, with nine total performance areas hosting around 3,000 events annually.

In September of this year, the centre opened a new free permanent exhibition titled, ‘Art and Ideals: President John F. Kennedy’, and the gallery was opened with a performance by a Kennedy Center favourite; the American cellist Yo-Yo Ma.

Ma played El Cant dels Ocells (Song of the Birds), which in itself he described as a tribute to the Spanish cellist, Pablo Casals, who played the same song for President Kennedy in 1961.

“Pablo Casals was inspired what President Kennedy and his administration were trying to do in the world, so accepted an invite to play at the White House,” Ma told the audience at the Kennedy Center exhibition opening.

Like how Casals was inspired, “this exhibit and the work of the Kennedy Center will continue to inspire generations of people,” Ma explained before his performance (watch below).

Read more: Yo-Yo Ma played cello outside Russian Embassy in moving protest against Ukraine war

Yo -Yo Ma performs 'El Cant dels Ocells' at the Kennedy Center

As a child, Ma played for President John F. Kennedy, 60 years ago this month on 29 November 1962.

At the tender age of seven years old, Ma performed with his sister on ‘An American Pageant of the Arts’, a televised event to raise money for the National Cultural Center. Following JFK’s death a year later, the National Cultural Center would later become the Kennedy Center.

The sibling duo performed the first movement of French composer Jean-Baptiste Bréval’s Concertino No. 3 in A Major, with Ma on the cello, and his sister Yeou-Cheng Ma on the piano.

The Ma’s were introduced by the host for the evening, legendary American conductor and composer Leonard Bernstein. Also on the bill that night was Spanish cellist Pablo Casals.

Read more: When a 7-year-old cello prodigy named Yo-Yo Ma played to the world for the first time

Leonard Bernstein presents 7-year-old Yo-Yo Ma's high-profile debut for President John F. Kennedy

The new permanent exhibition at the Kennedy Center is an immersive dive into the former President, whose administration welcomed and championed the role of artists in American society.

Deborah Rutter, President of the Kennedy Center, told Classic FM: “The exhibition is self-guided and includes both video and immersive interactive exhibits alongside physical artefacts. And a central part of the exhibition is that we have his speeches, which is what he's especially well known for and it really gives us a sense of who he was.

“In the exhibition we are focusing on who he was, what his ideals were, what he stood for, and why our performing arts centre is named after him. In some ways, the naming doesn’t necessarily make sense; if you read a biography of JFK, it doesn’t say art, art, art, art, art on every page.

“But clearly, within his speeches and the way he communicated, and the way the Kennedy’s spent their time, that there was real importance on the arts.

“He had a strong belief in the humanities, in language and in the arts, which could be seen in everything from the state dinner invites to artists and authors, to the way the White House was redecorated.”

Read more: Yo-Yo Ma brings world to tears with poignant ‘Amazing Grace’ at inauguration concert

NOW OPEN: "Art and Ideals: President John F. Kennedy" | A New Permanent Exhibit

But how does JFK’s legacy live on in a performance venue, which celebrated the start of its 50th anniversary in September earlier this year?

“We’re named after one of the last visionary presidents that this country has had,” Marc Bamuthi Joseph, Vice President and Artistic Director of Social Impact for the Kennedy Center, told Classic FM. “And where JFK sits in the arc of the country, in terms of civil rights, nuclear proliferation, a post war economy and because he was tragically killed to gun violence, he's a kind of Crossroads figure.

“In his eloquence and in his capacity to identify moments to incline the country towards something else, there's a kind of futurity.”

Looking to the future, Bamuthi sees the Kennedy Center as a place to bring together these future-making artists, creative thinkers and theorists.

“We have a Federal Bureau of Investigation, we don’t have a Federal Bureau of Inspiration,” Bamuthi explains. “We don’t have those kind of structures. But a place like the Kennedy Center, to me, is the proxy for that.”