Written by Ken Glickman For the Lansing State Journal
Americans want a lot out of their classical music superstars. It’s not enough to be great virtuosos on their chosen instruments. They also must be great smilers, laughers and have stunning charisma.
Wharton Center is hosting the greatest classical music celebrity on Monday, and someone who fits those three criteria: Yo-Yo Ma.
In fact, from last year to this, Wharton has presented all four of this new brand of classical music celebrities: flutist James Galway, violinist Joshua B ell, soprano Renee Fleming, and now the biggest star of all, Yo-Yo Ma.
Up until about the 1980s classical soloists were known to be grumpy, aloof, arrogant, stuffy and self-absorbed. They looked as if they wore their tux and tails everywhere they went, even to bed. And their austere publicity photos nary showed a smile.
If you want to hear Ma at Wharton Center’s Great Hall on Monday, you better call a scalper for tickets —it’s been sold out for weeks. I can’t think of another classical artist who can fill all of Wharton’s 2,500 seats. When opera diva Fleming was here last year, there were several hundred seats that went empty, and the hall lost thousands of dollars.
But Ma is something different.
Surin Bagratuni, an international cello soloist and faculty member at the Michigan State University College of Music says, “He’s much more popular in America than he is in Europe. Over there, they go to hear a certain piece of music, here we go to hear a performer.”
When asked if Yo-Yo Ma has changed the public’s perception of the cello, he responded, “He made the cello known as an instrument of Yo-Yo Ma.”
Besides Ma’s warm and charming personality and stage presence, he also is known for his far-flung collaborations. Yes, he has recorded and concertized with all of the standard cello literature, but he also has recorded albums with bluegrass artists, tango and Brazilian music, and with jazz artists Bobbie McFerrin and Stephanie Grapelli.
And his hugely successful Silk Road Project has brought together musicians and instrumentalist from around Asia.
MSU’s Bagratuni says, “Without the force of Yo-yo’s name, people would never go to hear some of the composers whose works are heard through the Silk Road Project. He has done a lot of good for Asian music.
“Yo-Yo Ma became famous when he was very young — and his fame was absolutely well earned.”
Audiences don’t come just to listen to Yo-Yo Ma, they come to watch him play.
He’s magnetic, handsome, and the emotions of the music are displayed on his face. Some find his gestures bothersome in a concert, but most enjoy watching him play.
Bagratuni comments, “I wonder if people would like him as much if their eyes were closed.
“He doesn’t have a big cello sound statement. He’s a very clean player with an elegant sound.”
In past decades there were many great cellists who concertized around the world: Pablo Casals, Mistislav Rostropovich, Pierre Fournier, Leonard Rose, Jacqueline Dupree — but now there is only one — Yo-Yo Ma.
He played at the first inaugural of Barack Obama, the death of Steve Jobs and Edward Kennedy and even played a duet with Condoleezza Rice. In the movies, you’ve heard him in “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, and “Memoirs of a Geisha,” “Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World” and others.
In a recently published book of letters from Leonard Bernstein, one correspondence was found from a precocious 10-year-old Yo-Yo Ma, asking the maestro to listen to him play.
The youthful looking 58-year-old cellist has recorded 75 albums and has won an astounding fifteen Grammy awards.
For his concert at Wharton, Ma will be playing a traditional cello recital with his long time accompanist, Kathryn Stott. He will be playing his $2.5 million cello named Petunia.