Living Legend

The world-famous cellist and Harvard graduate Yo-Yo Ma ‘76 discusses his career and the power of music

It’s been 28 years since Yo-Yo Ma ’76 bid farewell to Cambridge, clutching his College diploma in one hand, his string bow in the other and set his sight on conquering the musical world. But this Sunday, Harvard will welcome its favorite cellist home in style, awarding him the 10th Annual Harvard Arts Medal.

But unlike most homecoming heroes returning to their roots after a long but victorious leave, Ma isn’t looking forward to being served a good old-fashioned, home-cooked meal. Rather, the endearingly humble and exclusive Sony Classical recording artist is himself eager to serve others.

In fact, Ma has made a habit of and enjoys hosting intimate master classes on college campuses when he travels, effusing that the young students not only reinvigorate his commitment to musical innovation with their energy but also educate him on another life perspective.

“I think it is so exciting, in my middle age, to meet [young] people who know the world in a slightly different way than I know it,” Ma says. When I was growing up, I was always working with people older than myself. But I find working with younger musicians now is always rewarding for me because they know what they think, and they have ideas that are different than mine. Interacting with people more my children’s age is really exciting to understand their world and what their concerns are, and what it’s like to live in that world, and what it’s like to meet some of the daily challenges as well.”

IN GOOD COMPANY

Just in time for spring, Arts First, Harvard’s annual celebration of student and faculty creativity, is back, and Ma will join the festivities on May 9 in Sanders Theatre as he is recognized for both his distinguished career in the arts and his artistic contributions to education.

As this year’s honored Arts Medal recipient, Ma’s name will be added to an elite list of past-winning Harvard alumni that includes filmmaker Mira Nair ’79, director Peter Sellars ’80, author John Updike ’54, singer Bonnie Raitt ’72 and the late actor Jack Lemmon ’47.

University President Lawrence H. Summers promises that the award presentation aims to be consistent with the passionate spirit of Arts First. As Summers explained in a press release, “The arts are an enormous part of the undergraduate experience at Harvard, with approximately half of our 6,600 students participating in the joys and rigors of learning about and creating art. Whatever your artistic passion, you’ll find it in abundance at Arts First.”

BRINGING UP PRODIGY

Ma was born in Paris to Chinese immigrant parents, and as a seven year-old musical prodigy, he came under the tutelage of Julliard music teacher Leonard Rose and never looked back.

Playing the role of the standout musician is not new to Ma, who began learning to play the cello at age four and gave his first concert by age five. But despite his years of stage experience, Ma has never been completely comfortable in the limelight. Even in interviews, it is clear that the soft-spoken Ma would rather not talk about himself.

“So what’s going on with you?” the Grammy-winning cellist wondered aloud, deflecting my question with a boyish charm that transcends our telephone interview.

Indeed, Ma himself playfully acknowledges that he has never fully grown up, perhaps as a result of his unusually precocious childhood. But he credits his years at Harvard with helping him to overcome some of his childhood naiveté. “Growing up—well growing up implies that I have finished growing!—I was exposed to a very specific, focused musical background, so seeing [in college] so many people my own age passionate about what they were studying, just as I was, really opened many doors to me.”

And then there was Harvard.

Even after 14 Grammy wins, Oscar recognition and over 25 years of globe-trotting, Ma still names Harvard as his primary inspiration. “I think that everything I do today probably has its roots in what I did during my four years in college.”

Citing the influence of his enrollment in anthropology and archaeology courses on his path of his musical exploration in his career, Ma says the importance of a liberal arts education should not be underestimated. “Those courses really made me think about how the training of different priorities, of different value systems, in different cultures translates into very different modes of cultural expression,” he said.