Mention a few of this nation’s recent newsworthy events and there’s a pretty good chance that Yo-Yo Ma was a celebrated participant.
Together with Itzhak Perlman, Gabriela Montero and Anthony McGill, Ma performed at the 2009 presidential inauguration of Barack Obama. In 2013, the celebrated cellist played at an interfaith service to honor the victims of the Boston Marathon bombings. And those are but the tip of the iceberg.
The distinguished American cellist performed at the 100th anniversary of the Statue of Liberty in 1986 and was featured along with the Mormon Tabernacle Choir during the opening ceremonies of the 2002 Winter Olympics.
Born to Chinese parents in Paris, Ma was a child prodigy who has become one of the most honored musicians of all time. He is the recipient of the 1978 Avery Fisher Prize, the 2001 National Medal of Arts, the 2011 Presidential Medal of Freedom and the 2011 Kennedy Center Honors. His recordings, which number more than 75, have earned him 17 Grammy Awards.
After an absence of 10 years, Ma returns this week for an encore appearance with the Oklahoma City Philharmonic. He’ll be the featured soloist in the 1850 cello concerto by Robert Schumann. Part of the orchestra’s 25th anniversary season, this concert will also feature Rimsky-Korsakov’s “Scheherazade.” Joel Levine will conduct.
Ma first performed Schumann’s A Minor cello concerto at a concert in Venezuela when he was just 16 years old. He chuckled when recounting the story about how as a teenager, he’d jump at the chance to perform in any foreign country.
“At that time, I thought of the piece as a sort of daydream,” Ma said recently. “In real life you have to have action, time and place in a particular order. In a daydream, you can jumble all that up because you can layer one part of your imagination onto another.
“Things can be dramatically different from one second to another. The nice thing about performing is that you’re not using just one part of yourself. You’re using all of your senses and all of your experience.”
Throughout much of his life, Schumann was plagued by inner demons, periods of melancholy and tinnitus. In February 1854, he attempted suicide by jumping into the Rhine River. After being rescued, the composer asked to be committed to a sanitarium. He died there two years later.
Schumann’s marriage to Clara Wieck in 1840 marked the beginning of happier times in the composer’s troubled life. His cello concerto was completed in just two weeks time in October 1850.
“I think what’s wonderful about the Schumann is that it explores different states of being in love,” Ma said. “When you’re in love, every core in your being is activated. The air feels different, your gait is different.
“You’re more energized or you’re more down and out because maybe (the person you’re in love with) doesn’t care. That is evident in the first movement. In the second movement, the duet between the principal cello and the soloist is so full of longing. It’s almost like this transcendent moment.
“In the rollicking third movement, you have the joy and celebration that comes from yet another state of being in love. Whether you agree with something like that or not, the sentiments all come from your inner self and Schumann was so great at describing the interior life.”
In a career that spans more than 50 years, Ma has played with virtually all of the world’s great orchestras, while his solo, chamber and concerto appearances have earned him considerable wealth.
At 58, Ma could easily rest on his laurels or cut back on touring. But he seems fixated on the premise that every new experience has something important to offer and he’d have regrets if he didn’t explore those opportunities.
“I think one of the things that keeps me motivated is that by traveling, I become privy to people’s lives and I get to understand their stories,” Ma said. “After all, music deals with people’s inner lives.
“Another thing that I’m drawn to is thinking about who I am and how I fit into the world. I was always taught to think about the biggest thing possible and then also at the very same time think of the smallest thing possible. You have to know both.
“You’ve got to know the whole story but you have to make every moment count. So in terms of why I do what I do, I’m fascinated by people’s stories and sharing them with one another. That way, we can understand each other better at the human level. I think the more we do that, the more the world makes sense to us.”
Yo-Yo Ma and the Oklahoma City Philharmonic
When: 8 p.m. Saturday
Where: Civic Center Music Hall, 201 N Walker
Information: 842-5387 or www.okcphilharmonic.org.