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Yo-Yo Ma has been on stage from an early age, turning out some 90 albums and performing for eight presidents. At 60, the classical music star is taking a step back to reflect on life. On his new album, "Songs from the Arc of Life," he and a longtime collaborator use the music of cherished composers to create a soundtrack of change, love and loss. Jeffrey Brown reports.
Finally tonight: Yo-Yo Ma and his acclaimed career. He's been on the stage since a very early age.
Now, as Jeffrey Brown found when he visited him in New York recently, the renowned cellist's taking time in his latest work to incorporate personal milestones and reflections.
In their new album, Yo-Yo Ma and longtime collaborator and friend Kathryn Stott have used the music of cherished composers, Bach, Brahms, Gershwin and others, to create a kind of soundtrack of change, love and loss. It's called "Songs From the Arc of Life."
YO-YO MA, "Songs From the Arc of Life": What do people remember from their childhood, music from their childhood? What do people go through when they are teenagers, or what do they go through when they're in, you know, adolescence, or middle age, or you know, late age? We have two "Ave Maria"s, the miracle of birth, the infinitude of death.
Yo-Yo Ma was born in Paris to musician parents and moved to New York when he was 5. He'd begun cello lessons a year earlier, and by 8, he and his violinist sister had performed on national television in a concert featuring Leonard Bernstein and other major figures.
Over the years, he's turned out some 90 albums, a classical music star who's also recorded a wide variety of music from this country and around the world with a who's-who of musicians from other genres. He's appeared before presidents, received the Presidential Medal of Freedom and the National Medal of Arts, and the true sign of cultural importance, made a cameo on "Sesame Street."
Man, that is one mellow cello.
All of this before he turned 60 this month. And between his birthday and several musical anniversaries, when we met at a recording studio in New York recently, I found him ready to ponder his own life's arc.
I think my path was a little circuitous, because I was born into a musical family, and so music was there. And so I felt like I never chose to go into music, because that's just what I did.
And the accidental parts, you know, my moving from France to the United States because my father got a job in New York, that was an accident. I think, if I were growing up somewhere else, my life would have turned out very differently.
But, surely, so much work goes into making you the musician you are and the life that you had, and the kind of commitment and drive. That goes beyond the accidental.
Absolutely. I can be incredibly focused, and, you know, incredibly willful and stubborn, and — but I think I also want to figure out what it's about.
Yes, it takes a lot of focus. It takes those 10,000 hours to do something, but it's like, how does it fit in within the context of living?
One of the major projects of Ma's life connects music from different ages and cultures. He created the Silk Road Ensemble 15 years ago, its name chosen for the ancient China-to-Europe trade route.
We sat in as the collective, comprising many nationalities, worked on a composition by Syrian clarinetist Kinan Azmeh titled "The Wedding."
Ma says much of his own world view, embodied in this effort to blend sounds and cultures, is shaped by his immigrant past.
And with everything that's happening now, you know, the refugee situation, immigration situation, I'm an immigrant.
Je suis immigrant, right?
But it's striking to me — and I'm wondering if it hits you — it must — that even as this sort of era of globalization, where there's much more communication, and at the same time more tribalism, more xenophobia, more tensions around the world.
Those are the reactions that fear produces.
Rather than get depressed when change occurs, you could, you know, where — what would be the opposite of fear? I would say it's hope. I have also spent quite a lot of time thinking, well, you know, what can I do between 60 and 70 that may be useful?
So, what does that mean in your case?
I think, from my perspective, I get more and more pleasure seeing other people doing things and succeeding. And I don't feel like I have to do this and that in order to prove something.
What has been the purpose or the goal for you that music gives you?
It's a friend, a friend in need. It is — it gives joy. It gives solace.
You know, I have seen you play so many times, and now I get to ask you this. When you close your eyes, and you kind of — you know, your head kind of goes back off, and then you're — sometimes there's this smile on your face, are you thinking at that moment? Are you experiencing? What's going on inside you while you're playing?
It's a process of figuring out, what are the priorities that need to be communicated?
So, basically, the most important thing is that something someone cared about, whether it's a piece of music someone wrote or something that I'm playing, the content of which actually passes on to somebody, and lives in somebody else. I think that's where age makes a difference.
In September at Royal Albert Hall in London, Yo-Yo Ma gave himself a rather unusual 60th birthday present. He performed all six of Bach's solo cello suites, still considered the pinnacle of composition for his instrument.
It's an enormous challenge.
It's a physical check-in, because I have never actually done them pretty much — pretty much all in a row without breaks. But it's also a check-in in terms of where you are in life in terms of focus. And the question is, have I learned enough to be able to do this with total dedication and focus? Can you — can I pull it off?
And the results were? Are you a better musician now?
No, I'm not sure that I'm better at anything, but I think I feel that I can still contribute.
You just keep learning. Keep on trucking.
Alright, Yo-Yo Ma, thanks so much.
Thank you, Jeffrey.
Yo-Yo Ma played part of "Quartet From the End of Time" for us.
You can see that on our Art Beat page at PBS.org/NewsHour.
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