Yo-Yo Ma's Musical Autobiography: 'Appassionato' Cellist Yo-Yo Ma's latest CD is the romantically themed Appassionato, which has been billed as his "musical autobiography." Released just last week, the album is already one of the most popular downloads on iTunes.
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Yo-Yo Ma's Musical Autobiography: 'Appassionato'

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Yo-Yo Ma's Musical Autobiography: 'Appassionato'

Yo-Yo Ma's Musical Autobiography: 'Appassionato'

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(Soundbite of music)


With Valentines Day exactly a month away, a new collection by a famously lyrical player might be just the thing to set the romantic mood.

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YDSTIE: Cellist Yo-Yo Ma's new CD is called "Appassionato." Yo-Yo Ma joins us from the studios of the Christian Science Publishing Society in Boston. Welcome.

Mr. YO-YO MA (Cellist): Thank you, John. It's a pleasure to be with you.

YDSTIE: Well, I've been enjoying listening to your new CD, and there is certainly a lot of passion in it. What makes the cello such a passionate instrument?

Mr. MA: Well, a lot of people say that the range of the cello encompasses the range of the human voice, from, you know, soprano, mezzo soprano, to alto, to base, because it can play in all of those ranges. It can also take on many roles; you know, it could take on a rhythmic role, a lyrical role, an inner voice role. And so by being able to understand those different roles, you can then transcend the instrument in that way. If you get there, you get to the inner core of what music expresses, which is what is going in a person's inner life. The good stuff is always that.

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YDSTIE: There certainly are a wide variety of pieces and styles are on here. How did you choose the works for "Appasionato?"

Mr. MA: Well, I think, you know, I'm 51, and in a funny way these tracks reflect about 28 years of recording life. So in many ways, as much as the music codes the composers' inner lives, in some ways the music here codes a lot of my life. They all have specific meanings and connections. I think the earliest track is one of the most famous pieces, "The Swan" by Saint-Saens. And I was born in France and probably it was one of the very first pieces I played as a youngster, as well as the Franck Sonata, which was the second track, a piece - imagine that you're going to get married and you're a great violinist. And you get a wedding gift from one of the great composers of the time, Cesar Franck, and your name is Eugene Izai(ph). This is your wedding present.

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Mr. MA: And so there are many little vignettes that kind of go with these -

YDSTIE: With the theme.

Mr. MA: With these choices. Yes.

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YDSTIE: A number of the selections on the CD have been released before, but there are a few newly recorded pieces. One is the piece by the Argentinean composer Astor Piazzolla. Tell us about that.

Mr. MA: Piazzolla himself not only came from Argentina, but he lived in Paris. He lived in New York. And this piece, "The Grand Tango," was written for one of the great cellist in the world, Rastopovich. And I didn't like the piece when I first saw it.


Mr. MA: And then going to Buenos Aires sealed the deal for me. It just - I could see the incredible rhythms of the tango and the milonga that have African bases, the string writing that definitely have a European base, and suddenly the fusion of all the elements and the incredible sort of restrained hot passion that is absolutely inherent to the music; it just - it fired me up.

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YDSTIE: So did you learn to tango as well?

Mr. MA: You would never want to see me.

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YDSTIE: You tango with your cello, I guess, huh.

Mr. MA: Yes. I tango with mango.

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YDSTIE: Is that the name of your cello?

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Mr. MA: No. But I, but - no, Petunia is the name of my cello.

YDSTIE: No. Really?

Mr. MA: Yeah. Yes.

YDSTIE: Really.

Mr. MA: It was named by a high school student. I was doing a talk with young people. And she asked me - her name is Brynn, I think, and she said, do you have a name for your cello? I said, no. Well, she said, B.B. King does, you know, Seal. I said, well, okay, I'll play you something and if at the end of what I'm playing for you, you give me a good name, I might name it that. And at the end of session, she said Petunia. I said, hey, that's sound pretty good. Done.

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Mr. MA: There is a piece called "First Impressions" that Edgar Meyer wrote, and it's very dear to me, because Edgar and Mark O'Connor introduced me to filling in the whole idea of oral tradition that came to the States from Ireland and Scotland and Denmark and passes through Nashville, going out to Texas. And Edgar wrote this piece after my daughter, who sat under the piano during some rehearsals, and he just have this idea that he was going to write this piece for Emily, my daughter, who's now 21.

It's a very lovely piece and I wanted to make sure that it was in there.

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YDSTIE: You say in some liner notes that working with Edgar Meyer and Mark O'Connor gave you a new insight into how to play baroque music. How did this help you play baroque music?

Mr. MA: Well, fiddling is an oral tradition. It's passed on from parent to child. It's an old tradition that gets transmitted pretty exactly, pretty accurately without notation. So tunes that were played sometimes hundreds of years ago get transmitted and travel tremendous distances in this case, you know, across the Atlantic, and the techniques that were used also has stayed fairly constant. You look at baroque music, written down music, where people are looking at textbooks and say, well, this is how we play this, this is how we use the bow. And while I was listening to Mark and Edgar play, I realized that I had to adjust my sort of 19th, late 20th century technique, and say, well, I can't play the way they do unless I actually change my way of playing physically, as well as retune my ears.

And suddenly it dawned on me, said, you know, this is exactly what the historic instrument practice people are researching, and I'm seeing actually a direct transmission, and matching the two made perfect sense.

YDSTIE: So you're saying that the fiddlers play in a baroque style and it's been handed down over the centuries.

Mr. MA: Absolutely.

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YDSTIE: There's one other thing that you said about your collaboration with them and that is that you thought you'd gotten it long before you'd gotten it. Tell us that story.

Mr. MA: Oh yes, my moments of humiliation.

YDSTIE: Yes, please, tell us about your moments of humiliation.

Mr. MA: Yes. Here goes. We met, we thought, okay, let's try and do this, and Edgar and Mark would say, let's get together once a month over a year and then let's do this. I thought, gee, they really want to work a lot, don't they, huh? Okay, fine, fine. Because I'm such a nice guy, all right, let's do this. And first session, second session, we're trying new music, they wrote wonderful music, I'm playing it; they said, yup, that sounds beautiful, it's great. I said, no, a little smug, a little self-satisfied. Hey guys, this sounds really good. Silence. You don't think so? Silence. Edgar sort of hems and haws, well - and suddenly they said, okay, Yo-Yo, rhythmically it's not very good. This is not swinging. And you know, it's too much vibrato. Hearing this type of thing, we do it in this way, and suddenly, yeah, they just cleaned out my ears, and for the rest of that year I'm desperately trying to say, okay, well, you know, is it better? You know, less smug, and occasionally they would - one of them would nod.

YDSTIE: They got it.

(Soundbite of laughter)

YDSTIE: So you stayed with it for a year?

Mr. MA: Yeah, and I'm, you know, I think with anything that you spend - really you're committed to and you want to go deeply into it, it stays with you forever.

YDSTIE: The press release that accompanied this CD bills it as a kind of musical autobiography. And if that's the case, what do we learn about Yo-Yo Ma the person?

Mr. MA: Smug. Humiliated.

YDSTIE: Come on, passionate.

Mr. MA: Okay.

YDSTIE: All right.

Mr. MA: Passion. Yes. Thank you. Thank you. You know, if there's one thing - I'm playing with about eight different pianists on this and a number of different orchestras and music from - American music, Russian music, Italian, music from Kazakhstan, China, Japan, Finland. So you say, well, who is this guy? What's going on there? Well, I figured out that my passion is not really for music. My passion is actually for people. So the exploration into different musics of different times has to do with trying to figure out who these people are, what this music represents and what context do want to give it, and what does it mean to us right now.

YDSTIE: Well, Yo-Yo Ma, it's been a great pleasure. Thank you very much.

Mr. MA: Thank you.

YDSTIE: Yo-Yo Ma's new CD is called "Appasionato". Later this week, he'll be in residence for workshops and performances in Silk Road, Chicago. There's information about Silk Road Project and audio cuts from his new CD on our Web site, npr.org.

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