Ten Minutes With Yo-Yo Ma
C. Taylor Crothers
Yo-Yo Ma has played for six Presidents—seven, if you count President Bartlett on “The West Wing.” His cultural ubiquity is long-established—the cello master has been referenced on “The Simpsons” and “Seinfeld.” Known for his inspired takes on classical favorites, Ma also participates in unexpected musical journeys like the quasi-bluegrass throwdown on “The Goat Rodeo Sessions.” He splits his time between Cambridge and Tyringham and is frequently spotted in Tanglewood’s audience—when not onstage performing.
You’ve said that the rest of America could stand to learn a few things from the Berkshires. Like what?It has a unique combination of a sense of live-and-let-live but also of building community. People give time to one another. There’s a civility that is wonderful. There’s a real diverse number of towns of different character, and their characters have evolved over time but they don’t lose their historic linkages. And I feel there’s a shared responsibility for our assets, with the idea of thinking of this as a creative economy.
When you’re in the Berkshires, do people approach you on the street? I would say the bell curve goes up during weekends in the summer; but otherwise, I know so many locals, that they’re just buddies. My wife and I love to go to Jacob’s Pillow, to the theater, or just to go look at shops or visit friends. We feel like residents.
You’ve played venues of all shapes and sizes around the world. What’s special to you about Tanglewood? Oh, my goodness. It’s got that special quality at the edge between nature, rural life, and urban sophistication. It’s the model for summer-performance venues. But it’s like Frank Zappa used to say—he’d write a great song and people would go up to him afterward and say, “Please write another one just like it.” You can imitate it, but you can’t replicate it.
Do you listen to much Frank Zappa? I’ve listened to a fair amount. Once I was walking through the square in Vilnius, Lithuania, and there’s a big statue of Zappa there. It was an amazing encounter. During the Soviet era he was a hero of freedom of expression and individuality.
If the Berkshires was going to do something like that, there’d be a close vote between you and James Taylor. Oh, I don’t think so. He should definitely get that. He’s immortalized it in “Sweet Baby James” and many other ways. And he’s a real citizen-musician.
Are you more open-minded than some previous generations of classical musicians about making overtures into the world of popular music? Musicians have always taken everything around them and used it. If you trace anything, you’ll find diverse backgrounds. This is how it always has been and always will be.
Have you ever worked with Andris Nelsons, the Boston Symphony Orchestra’s next music director? I met him last summer. I heard the concert he conducted with the BSO of Stravinsky and Brahms. It was unbelievable, so powerful. Really impressive. At the anniversary gala, we shared a room together backstage because there were so many people. I had no idea he’d become the next music director, but we had a really lovely chat.