Yo-Yo Ma

Yo-Yo MaThe most famous cellist of contemporary times and one of the most recognizable names and faces in music, Ma's catholicity of taste has led him to collaborations beyond classical music.

Born: Oct. 7, 1955, Paris France

Career highlights

  • 1971: The teenage cellist is engaged by Leonard Bernstein to make his debut at Carnegie Hall as part of a fundraising event for the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts. The event is televised.
  • 1978: Two years out of Harvard University, Ma wins the Avery Fisher Prize, the first of dozens of awards and honors. Major debuts follow.
  • 1985: Ma wins his first Grammy award -- Best Solo Instrumental Performance, for his first recording of the Bach Cello Suites, works with which he has been associated throughout his career.
  • 1991: He receives an honorary doctorate from his alma mater, Harvard University.
  • 1997: Performs in John Williams's score to Seven Years in Tibet. Subsequently performs on movie soundtracks to Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000, Tan Dun), Master and Commander (2003) and Memoirs of a Geisha (2005, Williams).
  • 1998: Founds the Silk Road Ensemble to explore world musical connections.
  • 1998: Begins his "Inspired by Bach" series, in which film directors make interpretive movies to accompany Ma playing the Cello Suites.
  • 2002: On the first anniversary of the World Trade Center attacks, Ma becomes one of the first artists to perform at ground zero.
  • 2009: Participates in the performance of a John Williams composition at the inauguration of President Barack Obama.
  • 2011: Awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom

Fun Facts


  • Yo-Yo Ma and Bobby McFerrin perform Hush, Little Baby
    What's in a name?: In Chinese tradition, each generation in a family shares one element of a name in common. Yo ("friendly" in Chinese) is the element shared with his sister (Yo-Cheng). The surname Ma means "horse" in Chinese. As revealed in Henry Louis Gates Jr.'s PBS documentary series, Faces of America, the Ma family's direct paternal descendants can be traced back to 1217. Ma's generation element had been decided back in 1755 by an ancestor.
  • Collaborators: Ma enjoys connecting with other artists, and the list of his musical collaborators include a wide cross-section of musicians from jazz musicians such as Stephane Grappelli, Dave Brubeck, Diane Krall, and Joshua Redman, to pipa player Wu Man (with the Silk Road Ensemble), to singer/ songwriter James Taylor to Bobby McFerrin. Perhaps his most famous collaboration was with composer/ violinist Mark O'Connor and bassist Edgar Meyer, on O'Connor's composition Appalachia Waltz. The album of that title, released in 1996, spent 10 months at the top of the recording charts, inspiring a follow-up album and eventually an expanded tour with mandolinist Chris Thile.
  • Mentor: Ma's dedication to teaching and mentoring means that dozens of cellists have benefitted from Ma's intelligence and musicality. He's also appeared on children's television and developed concerts for family audiences.
  • Decorations: Ma has won 16 Grammy Awards; in addition to the Medal of Freedom, the cellist's groaning shelves hold a National Medal of the Arts, the Glenn Gould Prize, and the World Economic Forum's Crystal Award. He was named a U.N. Ambassador of Peace by Kofi Annan, an appointment extended by Annan's successor, General Secretary Ban-Ki Moon in 2007.

SFCV Articles Featuring Yo-Yo Ma

January 19, 2010

Yo-Yo Ma: Ready for the Fire

Some classical musicians are stars within the genre. Others have become known outside the classical field. And then there’s Yo-Yo Ma. He’s a classical music superstar, of course, but he’s also a musician who has tackled everything from Brazilian rhythms to the music of Appalachia; an educator; an almost insanely prolific recording artist; and a person who actively takes part in promoting music for all.

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May 14, 2009

The Joy of Ma

Best known in recent years for his willingness to explore a broad variety of postmodern musical styles and cultures, on Thursday night Yo-Yo Ma graced the stage of the Mondavi Center at UC Davis with a program of J.S. Bach’s unaccompanied cello suites, a return to the repertoire that he cut his teeth on.

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December 30, 2008

Moseying Down China’s Silk Road

Yo-Yo Ma’s and his Silk Road Project have come up with a new CD featuring a host of young performers supported by the Chicago Symphony. Titled Traditions and Transformations, the disc includes two standard works, Ernest Bloch’s Schelomo and Prokofiev rambunctious Scythian Suite, Op. 20, plus two first recordings, Byambasuren Sharav’s Legend of Herlen (2000), and Lou Harrison’s final work, his Pipa Concerto (1997). It’s quite a spread.

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