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8 Quick Questions for Yo-Yo Ma

Legendary musician is eager to share the transformative power of music

spinner image yo-yo ma playing a cello on a deck with mountain behind him
Matt Eich/The New York Times/Redux

Famed American cellist Yo-Yo Ma, 67, has been delighting audiences for decades with his musical prowess. His newest project, Music Art Life, Bach, Unlocking Meaning and Finding Purpose, shares his deep love for the works of composer Johann Sebastian Bach. Ma is hosting the eight-week collaborative online program that starts May 1 and includes livestream conversations, musical performances and guest speakers. According to Ma, “[It’s the] music and the art form that actually can help us find meaning in life.”

You’ve done impromptu performances in unexpected places [such as subway stations, a COVID-19 vaccination site, Acadia National Park and outside the Russian Embassy in Washington to show unity with Ukraine]. Is there some place left you really want to play?

It’s not a bucket list. It’s not about Oh, I want to play there. It’s whenever music can make sense, [then] that’s where it should happen. So it’s not like, I need to play on top of a mountain or underwater, but if it makes sense. If it’s [for] someone who is ill, it always makes sense — if it’s going to bring some pleasure. Or if it’s a child and you want to show them something and communicate something, that’s the appropriate time. And in between, there are the concerts you play at 8:00, right? But otherwise, it should be always wherever it can have a purpose.

What’s the purpose of your new Bach project?

Interactivity. It’s 360-degree communication. This is not a class, this was a conversation. It’s like the best of a reading group. You’re doing a reading group, but the author’s also there. My goodness, that’s a rare kind of thing. I got very excited having the rare chance to experiment. And not only because, as you know, it’s not just music as an art form, but it’s actually the music and the art form that actually can help us find meaning in life. How do you live life when you experience this kind of serendipity — of somebody taking us to an extraordinary place — and how does that affect our life? How are we all the time looking for meaningful peak experiences so then we can find life so worth living?

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What peak experiences have you had as an audience member?

I’ve had three peak experiences recently. The first one was [when] my wife [art consultant Jill Horner] and I went to the Vermeer exhibit in Amsterdam, and then we saw Rembrandts. What we discovered was, when you're not rushed to go through an exhibit and you can stare at the 16 layers of light and painting … it was such an extraordinary experience. Then, I went to see a French film a friend had recommended, Children of Paradise. … an amazing film that is an allegory about life and love in the middle of one of the greatest horrors of all time, WWII, and again a peak experience. We can experience it in all different times, and certainly, yes, at concerts. Jill and I went to a concert at the BSO [Boston Symphony Orchestra] maybe two months ago, and there was a baritone singing Wagner [Christian Gerhaher as the knight Wolfram] and every syllable he uttered was so full of expression. I was completely mesmerized. Art happens when you transcend technique, when you are taken into some complete other world. … It wasn't like he was doing pyrotechnics or whatever ... but I certainly experienced something extraordinary.

What do you think about reality TV singing competitions like American Idol or The Voice?

These are extraordinary things, and what I love about these shows is that, in fact, it really proves that talent comes from everywhere. People have absolutely extraordinary ways to express themselves, and I’m not sure where they come from, but boy, it’s there. It’s there, and people do it in music, people do it in construction, people do it in all kinds of ways. Some people just do it out of a kind gesture … that kind of an extraordinary moment of humanity.

Some parents push their children to play musical instruments. How did you handle that with your kids?

You can pressure your kids to do things, but your kids are who they are. They are unique individuals, and they react to what they see and feel according to who they are. They both took music lessons, but we never said, “Oh, you're going to be a musician.” And they’re not musicians, but boy, they love music in their own way. My children — who are now grown —  they get together and they start singing together because they know all the musicals, they know all kinds of songs. When they hear me play, they react. They have great ears.

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You’ve got a busy touring schedule planned for this year. In addition to your cello, what do you never leave home without?

Besides a toothbrush? Shaving kit, clean clothes, the essentials. I try not to check luggage. I try to pack everything into a carry-on. I’m very careful with packing … having aspirin, earplugs because you might be in a place that is noisy, and if you can’t sleep, you can’t really function properly. How many formal places am I going to be, and do I have the right clothes for that?

spinner image yo-yo ma on stage holding cello in left hand and other hand is out to the side
Ma held a free public concert at Jay Pritzker Pavilion in Chicago.
Wang Ping/Xinhua News Agency/eyevine/Redux

Back in 2010, on the PBS ancestry show Faces of America, you learned you are distantly related to Eva Longoria. Have you reached out?

Can you believe it? No, I’m dying to. I’m sure she won’t talk to me. … You do all of this DNA analysis and find out everybody is connected. It’s just amazing.

You’ve won 19 Grammy Awards. Where do you keep them all?

One just came in, and it was unwrapped, so basically it’s in an office someplace. We’re not trying to showcase it and say, “Look at my Grammys.” … I’m obviously very grateful that people like me enough to give me a Grammy … it’s great to get awards and all that stuff, but that’s not the work. The work is the type of stuff we’re doing with [online production company] CafeMedia [Bach, Unlocking Meaning, and Finding Purpose] where we’re trying to communicate the essence of something and its meaning. That’s what I’m trying to understand about life, and because I do music, through music.

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