World-class cellist Yo-Yo Ma arrives in Abu Dhabi

The celebrated cellist Yo-Yo Ma will perform at Emirates Palace this evening as part of the Abu Dhabi Classics 2011.

Yo-Yo Ma will perform Thursday evening at the Emirates Palace and at Al Jahili Fort on Saturday.
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Am I interviewing Yo-Yo Ma, or is he interviewing me? When I talk to the celebrated cellist in the run-up to his first Abu Dhabi concert this evening, he has memorised details about my childhood from the CV he asked me to send in advance, and has so many questions I get flustered:

"What's Abu Dhabi like right now? How would you describe the audience? Do you think we could get a chance to talk to them other than at the concerts?"

Straight off I can feel the curiosity and phenomenal energy that have made Yo-Yo Ma not just the greatest cellist currently performing, but a vital linchpin for many musical worlds. Not content remaining in the western Classical mode in which he was trained, the 55-year-old Chinese-American cellist has a list of musical collaborators that is as eclectic as it is long. Rock guitarist Carlos Santana, jazz veteran Dave Brubeck and bluegrass singer Alison Krauss have all been musical partners, along with classical marquee names such as the violinist Itzhak Perlman and the soprano Renee Fleming.

Perhaps most striking of all, however, is the groundbreaking, Yo-led Silk Road Ensemble, a loose, 60-strong band of musical virtuosi from countries along the former Euro-Asian Silk Route, including anything from Lebanese Ney players to Mongolian folk singers.

It's not surprising Yo is at the core of so many musical networks - charming and sometimes downright chatty, his communication skills as both a person and musician are impressive. There's clearly more at work here, though. With this dazzlingly diverse mix of musical influences, I wonder if Yo-Yo Ma's career has always been about trying to break out of the classical box?

"In a way, yes," he agrees. "I don't accept the idea that there's one way of doing things - it can be possible to do things many different ways without going crazy."

This refusal to be limited is in part a reflection of his early life, he suggests. Born in Paris in 1955 to Chinese parents, Yo moved to New York as a young child, where he started public performances at the age of five. Making connections between these different cultural influences is a project that has shaped his musical career.

"I was dropped into a lot of places accidentally, and left trying to figure everything out. When I think about where I was born, where my parents are from and where I grew up - it was like I was in three places at the same time. It takes a long time to get a sense of planet earth, without singing 'Kumbayaa' all the time, without being too twee, doing it with substance and respect."

So in "getting a sense of planet earth" musically, does he find the concept of classical music itself claustrophobic?

"No, because music is always more than itself. There are many different kinds of classical music - Persian, Indian - and for me I define 'classical' quite simply as things that last. There's even classical pop in that sense. Classical music is about a kind of literacy, the term itself is like the musical equivalent of the word 'literature'. There's also a world classical music that I find very exciting.

"When Philip Glass was studying with Nadia Boulanger in Paris, his breakthrough was when she asked him to transcribe a piece of Indian classical music. He found he was unable to - and ultimately that moment changed his life, gave him his voice."

This omnivorous approach to music comes out in the programmes Yo is playing in Abu Dhabi - his performance with pianist Kathryn Stott at Al Jahili Fort on Saturday mixes the Romantic greats Brahms and Rachmaninov with the jazz master George Gershwin and the soundtrack legend Ennio Morricone.

This mix in no way means that Yo isn't passionately connected with the western classical repertoire, however. At a concert with Italy's Orchestra Sinfonica della RAI at the Emirates Palace tonight, he is also performing that cornerstone of the classical cellist's repertoire, Dvorak's Cello Concerto. Given that he's been performing the piece for decades, has it changed for him over the years?

"Well, I'm still trying to get it right," he laughs. "The piece changes as I've changed. At first, in your 20s when you're starting out, you're just trying to get the thing down. If you could measure your brain real estate, it takes 100 per cent of it at first to make something happen. As time goes by, though, you create a view, life comes in, growth, children, loss - maybe a view of a city or distant mountains. All that changes as one ages, and you can use 50 per cent of your mental real estate on the physical properties of playing, and use 50 as imaginative real estate to help it grow."

Seeing as the piece is something of an old friend, how would you describe it to someone who had never heard it before?

"As the life of a reluctant hero with a very poignant love story - I can actually prove it by going to the score. If you listen, there's this continuing ambivalence between major and minor - that's the reluctance that's threaded through the music. The last passages of the final movement are actually without a third - it's both in major and minor keys."

For Yo, there's a narrative drive that is feeding this bittersweet, undecided tone in the music.

"I'm sure this is connected to what was going on in Dvorak's life. I know he changed the whole ending - he was in New York at the time and he heard of the death of his sister in law. He rewrote the last passage into this longing, wistful ending that is, of course, absolutely amazing and transcendent."

With 50 years of public performances behind him, Yo's life itself has seen it's fair share of reversals. Though born outside the US, Yo-Yo Ma has steadily transformed into a pillar of the American musical establishment, performing at President Obama's inauguration two years ago (though he was in fact miming - a "completely standard procedure for major public events" he assures me). This must have taken graft as well as talent - so was he always committed to reaching the place he's in now?

"Well, for a time I was a bit - 'Who am I? What am I doing?' and occasionally reluctant to practise, and then I realised 'Hey! I have a peer group! I can make music with friends.' And the whole thing becomes fun. In my 20s, of course, I thought I was immortal, and spent the years travelling all over the world and absolutely loving it."

After this early career euphoria, however, living a musician's life becomes harder to balance with other commitments.

"Then kids come along, and you realise that to tour, you have to have better reasons than 'hey, it's fun.'

"Then comes loss - of friends, of teachers - and then you discover there's a new generation of musicians coming up, which is very stimulating, and that somehow connects the whole thing up."

  • Yo-Yo Ma will perform this evening at the Emirates Palace and at Al Jahili Fort on Saturday. For more information, visit