By Elysa Gardner, USA TODAY
NEW YORK Yo-Yo Ma is one of the world’s most famous and prolific classical musicians. But like a number of his projects, his latest album, The Goat Rodeo Sessions, defies categorization.
“Someone described it to me the other day as ‘genre-proof,’ ” the genial Ma says of Goat Rodeo, which teams him with musicians “from various traditions, from all over the place. You have bluegrass, Dixieland, the blues Therefore, it’s an American album. It could only have been made in America.”
One might say the same for Ma himself. Though born in Paris to Chinese parents, the cellist, 56, moved to New York with his family at age 5 and played for presidents John F. Kennedy and Dwight Eisenhower just a couple of years later. The child prodigy grew into a musical ambassador, performing for six additional presidents and at numerous national events, from the first Sept. 11 memorial at Ground Zero in 2002 to Sen. Edward Kennedy’s funeral in 2009.
President Obama is a particularly avid fan. Ma played at Obama’s inauguration and was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom last year. He also serves as a member of the President’s Committee on the Arts and Humanities, and his Goat Rodeo band including fiddler Stuart Duncan, bassist Edgar Meyer and mandolin player Chris Thile was the musical guest when Obama appeared on The Tonight Show With Jay Leno in October.
On Sunday, Ma will be among the artists celebrated at the annual Kennedy Center Honors. He and fellow 2011 honorees Meryl Streep, Neil Diamond, Sonny Rollins and Barbara Cook will sit with the president and first lady at the ceremony, which airs Dec. 27 on CBS.
Strolling through Central Park on a chilly fall afternoon, Ma speaks passionately, albeit humbly, about the opportunities his platform provides. A longtime proponent of the arts as an educational tool, he was encouraged by a recent presidential committee study of “the effect of arts integration on scholastic achievement and attendance records. There’s a clear correlation, and in a number of cities, we’re trying to figure out how to bring teaching artists into the system to work with kids.”
He’s also addressing those issues through Silk Road Connect, a middle-school program that is part of Ma’s Silk Road Project, a non-profit organization seeking to connect artists and audiences in different global communities. “We’ve worked with public schools in four boroughs of Manhattan over the last two years, with the same idea of tying the arts to English, math, social studies. I think a lot of schools and communities are headed that way.”
Ma has two children, both in their 20s. “They play instruments and sing. They’re not going to be professional musicians, but that’s never the point. They have a way of interpreting sound, of expressing themselves emotionally. Music promotes that emotional connection; it promotes empathy. I like to see people buy CDs, but it makes me most happy to see them personally involved in making something.”
Ulitmately, Ma sees his task as “working toward a more empathetic world a place where we have a more civil discourse and a strong middle class that can legitimately hope for things. That’s the mission of many people, of course, but I need to do it from where I work.”
And he brings as much joy to that work as he ever did, Ma says ”maybe even more. Because with age comes not only experience, but also loss. It becomes more and more important to savor and celebrate, and memorialize, what we as humans can do.”