Cellist Yo-Yo Ma is one of the most accomplished musicians of our time. He has performed before presidents (starting with Eisenhower and Kennedy, when he was just 7 years old) and prime ministers, won 15 Grammies, played on the soundtrack of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and other popular films and appeared in TV shows as diverse as Sesame Street, The West Wing and The Colbert Report. Particularly acclaimed for his performances and recordings of Bach’s Cello Suites, Ma, who was born in Paris in 1955 and grew up in New York City, began studying the cello at age 4, started performing at age 5 and earned a Bachelor’s degree from Harvard.
Not content to rest on his laurels, however, Ma has also embarked on explorations of other musical genres and traditions, from jazz to native Chinese to the Kalahari bush people. His Silk Road Ensemble brings together musicians from different countries linked to the ancient 4,000-mile-long trade route. Through his Silk Road Connect project, Ma is working to engage schoolchildren in the performing arts and thereby improve education: part of his mission in serving on the President’s Committee on the Arts and Humanities.
Ma has also worked with a diverse array of artists, from Bobby McFerrin to Mark Morris, just to name a few. One of his most recent collaborations is the Goat Rodeo Sessions: performances and recordings with bluegrass fiddler Stuart Duncan, bassist Edgar Meyer and mandolin player Chris Thile. The Goat Rodeo Sessions and guest vocalist Aoife O’Donovan will be performing at Bethel Woods on Friday, August 16 at 8 p.m.
Despite his extraordinary accomplishments, Ma, who lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts with his wife and two children, is a humble and accessible person. Here is his description of the Goat Rodeo Sessions and other thoughts on his work and life, which he generously shared with Almanac Weekly reporter Lynn Woods:
How did you get involved in the Goat Rodeo Sessions, and what makes the project worthwhile for you?
These musicians are friends of friends of friends. They are all great virtuosos and total masters. Three of them have received MacArthur genius awards. It is uncanny and mind-boggling to watch them at work. They think of something, and it comes out immediately; that’s amazing.
They combine all the traditions they grew up with to create a music that is a reflection of our present moment. Some people say the music we play is genre-proof; that’s the way any present moment should be, because the music just makes sense. It should speak directly to us, so we can hear the content and meaning.
Also touring with us is Aoife O’Donovan, who is an unbelievable singer. When she sings with Chris, you think it’s a marriage made in Heaven – they are not actually married, but their voices are. The camaraderie among all of us is really palpable.
Some new music has a reputation for being difficult. Would you say Goat Rodeo Sessions is accessible to the general public?
Whether it’s bluegrass or contemporary classical or jazz, you have a number of entry points. It’s fun, friendly and funny. The whole idea of doing this is, “Let’s get together and have an unbelievable amount of fun in the deepest way possible.”