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Yo-Yo Ma and the Silk Road Ensemble



The world's greatest living cellist brought his eclectic Silk Road Project back to Beijing. The concert staged on the NCPA.

You could call Yo-Yo Ma the world's greatest ambassador of the cello – that is, if it wasn't so limiting. An artistic omnivore, the 15-time Grammy winner has performed cello bluegrass, improvised with Bobby McFerrin, honoured tango master Astor Piazzolla, recorded with the bushmen of the Kalahari, played on scores such as Memoirs of a Geisha, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and Seven Years in Tibet, and collaborated with Kabuki actors and Mark Morris's dancers on a controversial accompaniment to Bach's "Cello Suites". He has played on five continents for a host of presidents, but cites his proudest moment as appearing on Sesame Street, boasting that he knew Tickle Me Elmo back when he was just Elmo. "Yo-Yo Ma is the greatest living cellist today," says cellist Wang Jian. "His playing has inspired many young cellists, and he has also broadened the cello's appeal to many listeners."

Ever the explorer, he eschewed further conservatory training for Harvard, finding freedom in diversity. Constrained by a strict upbringing and laser-focused study, Ma channelled short-lived teenage rebelliousness into a voracious appetite for liberal arts, revelling in courses on Dostoevsky, sociology and German literature, among others. As a freshman, he was already performing 30 international concerts a year, but always had time to play a friend's composition or join a Gilbert and Sullivan pit orchestra.

All this sowed the seeds for what is surely the most eclectic taste in music, perhaps best exemplified by his Silk Road Project. Designed to trace the exchange of musical ideas along the world's most famous historic trade route, the venture feeds both his restless brain and his famously philanthropic soul by mentoring young, brilliant, but otherwise obscure artists. "[Ma] has a genius for bringing together musicians from different backgrounds and making great things happen," says jazz cellist Matt Brubeck. "Despite his enormous fame, he is humble, generous and one of the most delightful people I have ever worked with."

Those who saw his 2008 Beijing Silk Road concert may remember how he broke off from playing his own instrument to prompt solos from duduk, tabla and kamancheh musicians, gifting them with applause from an audience who only wanted to hear him.

Ma calls himself a musical Waldo, showing up in unexpected places; others describe him as a giant sponge who absorbs a myriad of influences. In the same way basic courtesies or tenets cross cultural lines, Ma believes music may, one day, evolve and overlap so much as to create a unified global style. As the ancient artery between Europe and Asia, today's Silk Road region houses two-thirds of the world's population and some of the planet's greatest cultural conventions – even "traditional Chinese instruments", such as the pipa and erhu, hail from the Middle East and were originally passengers on the famous route.

But Ma is not without controversy, although you may have to squint to see it. Music lovers applaud his warm tone and stage presence, while acknowledging that he has expanded the cello repertoire more than anyone since Rostropovich. However, naysayers complain that he has lost his focus, and wonder why being "the world's greatest cellist" isn't enough. But for Ma, it's about the music. "Yo-Yo Ma is a unique case of talent, personality and charisma," says cellist and frequent collaborator Carlos Prieto, "His multifaceted activities have drawn unprecedented attention to the cello while enriching music, culture and understanding in many ways." As classical legacies go, nothing is better than that.

By Nancy Pellegrini

Editor: Liu Xiongfei