Our Top 10 Yo-Yo Ma Songs takes a look at world renowned cellist with many ties to all types of music including rock and roll. Yo-Yo Ma appeared on stage with Billy Joel at New York’s Madison Square Garden and blew away an audience of wild rock and roll fans. His music touches everyone. Born on October 7, 1955, in Paris, France, the Chinese-born and raised Yo-Yo Ma was considered a child prodigy as a cellist just shy of turning five years old. His mother was a singer and his father was a violinist, composer, and professor of music, both of whom migrated to France from China during the Chinese Civil War.
When Yo-Yo Ma was seven years old, he and his family picked up and moved to New York. Already used to performing before a live audience since he was five years old, he had no trouble performing at the age of seven before President Dwight D. Eisenhower, then his successor, President John F. Kennedy. When he was eight years old, Yo-Yo Ma and his sister began to appear on American television, first starting in an event that was introduced by Leonard Bernstein. The siblings were later introduced to Johnny Carson where they played before him and his audience on The Tonight Show.
He was a nineteen-year-old graduate from the Juilliard School, as well as a 1976 Harvard College graduate with a bachelor’s degree. In 1991, he also received from Harvard an honorary doctorate. In 1972, Yo-Yo Ma married Jill Horner, an administrator for the Marlboro Music Festival whom he met during the first of his four summers spent there.
Accomplishments & Legacies
Yo-Yo Ma has been performing as a solo artist with orchestras throughout the world. Out of the ninety albums he has recorded, he has eighteen Grammy Awards to his credit, as well as an Award of Excellence from New York’s International Center. In addition to an impressive resume of classical music, Ma also has a collection of bluegrass music, folk music, tangos, and traditional Chinese melodies he’s recorded. He has also collaborated with a number of artists from different genres. Yo-Yo Ma’s cello, which is nicknamed Petunia, is a circa 1733 Montagnana, which has an estimated value of $2.5 million USD. There was an occasion he accidentally left behind his cello in a taxicab, but it was returned to him quickly enough, safe and sound. It was, on a separate occasion, damaged during baggage inspection in Taiwan, and had to borrow a Pawle Stradivarius cello from the Chimei Museum. Although his own cello was repaired and returned to him on time, he played both instruments in concert.
In 1999, he was awarded the Glenn Gould Prize from the Glenn Gould Foundation, which is named after the Canadian pianist in his memory. He’s also earned a National Medal of Arts in 2001, the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2011, and the Polar Music Prize in 2012. Since 2006, Yo-Yo Ma has been a United Nations Messenger of Peace and was named by Time Magazine as one of its 100 Most Influential People of 2020, especially as a founding member of the influential Chinese-American Committee of 100 that addresses the concerns of Americans of Chinese heritage.
Yo-Yo Ma’s music was featured on John Williams’ 1997 soundtrack to the Hollywood film, Seven Years in Tibet, as well as his 2005 film, Memoirs of a Geisha. He’s also had music featured in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, as well as Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World, The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, Once Upon a Time in America, The Mission, and The Untouchables. Yo-Yo Ma’s music style is best described as eclectic and versatile. When it comes to selecting the top ten songs from Yo-Yo Ma’s extensive collection of fine music, regardless of genre style, each of them can arguably contend as a fan favorite. This is where going with accolades and the winning of awards seems to serve as the determining factor of what is considered best, at least in the eyes of the music industry, the critics, and of course, the fans of Yo-Yo Ma and his music.
Top 10 Yo-Yo Ma Songs
#10 – First Movement Concertino No. 3 in A Major, by Jean-Baptiste Breval (featuring Yeou-Cheng Ma)
At the time, Yo-Yo Ma was seven years old, who was accompanied by his eleven-year-old sister, Yeou-Cheng Ma, when they played to president John F. Kennedy and Dwight D. Eisenhower. This was at the “An American Pageant of the Arts” concert that was held on November 29, 1962. The goal behind the concert was to raise funds for the National Cultural Center, which began with President Eisenhower’s office, which was also encouraged once President Kennedy took over. Although just children at the time, these child prodigies were already at a performance level that surpassed most adults who strive to become world-class musicians themselves.
#9 – Fragile (featuring Sting and the Mormon Tabernacle Choir)
Yo-Yo Ma, along with his Petuna cello, performed Sting’s 1988 hit single, “Fragile,” alongside the original artist himself and the Mormon Tabernacle Choir during the opening ceremonies of the 2002 Winter Olympics that was held in Salt Lake City, Utah. There is also a jazz version of this song, which replaces the Mormon Tabernacle Choir with
#8 – Air and Simple Gifts (featuring Itzhak Perlman, Gabriella Montero, and Antony McGill)
During the January 20, 2009 inauguration ceremony of the newly elected Barack Obama, Yo-Yo Ma performed John Williams’ “Air and Simple Gifts,” alongside Itzhak Perlman on violin, Gabriella Montero on piano, and Anthony McGill on clarinet. The quartet played the music live and played simultaneously over speakers and on television. The recording itself was taken two days prior to the ceremony itself as there were concerns about the frigid temperatures that could potentially damage the instruments.
#7 – Heart and Soul (featuring Lisa Fischer, Gregory Porter, and Silkroad Ensemble)
From the Silk Road Ensemble new album that was released in 2016, Sing Me Home, “Heart and Soul” was a beautiful playout by Yo-Yo Ma, along with the vocal performance by Lisa Fischer and Gregory Porter. The 1938 duet was originally written for the cult classic film, A Star is Born, which was first lyrically performed by Bea Wain and the Larry Clinton Orchestra. The song came out a few months before the movie did and has since seen many versions of it recorded and released over the years. The movie has also seen different versions of it recreated over the years. As for Yo-Yo Ma’s performance of “Heart and Soul,” this equally qualifies as an all-time classic itself.
#6 – Amazing Grace
During the 2021 presidential inauguration of Joe Biden, Yo-Yo Ma performed “Amazing Grace” before a live audience with his masterful cello display. Already a beautiful enough song as it is, Ma’s performance added more emotional depth to turn this into more than simply another masterpiece.
#5 – Tchaikovsky: Variations on a Rococo Theme
In 1993, Yo-Yo Ma’s “Prokofiev: Sinfonia Concertante/Tchaikovsky: Variations on a Rococo Theme” earned him his third Grammy Award win for Best Instrumental Soloist Performance. In the YouTube video provided, this is a 1990 Christmas Day performance that seemed to add even more meaning to what’s typically celebrated by followers of the holiday as the greatest day of the year.
#4 – Symphony for Cello and Orchestra, Op. 68
“Barber: Cello Concerto, Op.22/Britten: Symphony for Cello and Orchestra, Op. 68” was a dramatic piece that was played beautifully by Yo-Yo Ma and his prized cello, Petunia. This powerful, yet playful, tune taps into the imagination almost as if it was a Walt Disney production, illustrating one of their animated classics where words aren’t necessary. Just sit back and let the music do all the talking.
#3 – Yo-Yo Ma Premieres – Danielpour, Kirchner, Rouse
“Yo-Yo Ma Premieres – Danielpour, Kirchner, Rouse” was awarded in 1998 for Best Instrumental Soloist Performance by the Grammy Awards, which served to be the fifth time in his brilliant career. Technically, this is an entire album recording of seven songs altogether, but when combined to listen to it all as one, it’s a concert worth listening to.
#2 – Ava Maria (featuring Kathryn Scott)
The New York Album – Works of Albert, Bartok & Bloch won a Grammy Award for Best Instrumental Soloist Performance in 1995, which became the fourth time Yo-Yo Ma earned the honor. One of the tunes Yo-Yo Ma performed from that album, was “Ava Maria.” The beautiful mix of piano and cello made this song one of those emotional favorites that deservedly awarded Ma more than just a single Grammy Award in his lifetime.
#1 – Bach: Cello Suite No. 1 in G Major, Prelude
If Bach himself was alive today, over three hundred years since his iconic performance, he would undoubtedly become speechless, if not moved to tears. As far as music videos go, when the opening written statement of Yo-Yo Ma is displayed before performing “Bach: Cello Suite No. 1 in G Major, Prelude”, this already served as an instant notice something great is about to happen.
The statement is simple in his own words, “Culture – the way we express ourselves and understand each other – can bind us together as one world.” While the video definitely does its job to set the vision in motion, it’s really the brilliant play by Ma that made his opening statement have far more value than can ever be put into words. This piece was released as part of his Six Evolutions – Bach: Cello Suites, a two-year-long endeavor that took him to thirty-six different places throughout the world to perform Bach’s best music with the assistance of community organizers and artists in each location of the Days of Action tour.
The DVD video album, Inspired by Bach, was a project Yo-Yo Ma felt strongly about, believing the music of Bach could help reunite a deeply fractured world. Of the six VHS cassettes that were created from the entire collection, his is the sixth installment. In the 3 DVD format, his is the third.
Top 10 Yo-Yo Ma Songs article published on Classic RockHistory.com© 2022
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