May 28, 2021

Yo-Yo Ma

World-renowned cellist Yo-Yo Ma performs for “Firing Line” and joins Margaret Hoover to discuss the impact of the pandemic on the arts and his belief that music can comfort people and connect cultures in even the darkest hours.

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A conversation and a concert, this week on Firing Line. 


Yo-Yo Ma’s instrument is the cello… and his mission is to bring the world closer together

SOT Leonard Bernstein 1962: “Welcome Yo-Yo Ma and Yeou-Cheng Ma. [Applause]”

Yo-Yo Ma played for President John F. Kennedy as a seven year old immigrant to the United States. He played for many more presidents at the White House, performed Amazing Grace in honor of President Joe Biden’s inauguration, and played with the world’s great orchestras…but also for children on Sesame Street…


Hoots: Yo! Yo-Yo Ma, my man. That is hard to say. 

Yo-Yo: Hi Hoots. 

…in a life dedicated to using music to unite people. In 2018 he launched an ambitious two year project to play Bach’s solo suites for cello in 36 cities around the world with the goal of healing divisions.

MA at Davos: “I play Bach music as a convening force”

The pandemic stopped his travel, but not his outreach which he continues from his home studio  in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and with his latest release “Songs of Comfort and Hope”

‘Firing Line with Margaret Hoover’ is made possible in part by… And by… Corporate funding is provided by… ♪♪ ♪♪ ♪♪ ♪♪ ♪♪

HOOVER: Yo-Yo Ma, welcome to Firing Line. 

MA: Thank you so much, Margaret. It’s such a pleasure to be with you.

HOOVER: You have said that you didn’t realize that you wanted to be a musician until you were over 49. Why did it take so long?

MA: I know, I’m a slow learner. And one of those things is that I grew up with music all around me, and it’s like I’m one of those kids that really kind of grew up in it. And by growing up in it I never felt I made a choice. And certainly from traveling as a musician, I was aware of the world around me. You know, learning and being exposed to more and more different ways and perspectives of looking at the world. And I thought, well, you know, music is a tiny part of it. And is that the best way to be effective or impactful? Just because I love it didn’t necessarily mean that that’s what I should be doing. And so, you mentioned 49, and I think what I realized at 49 was that what I really, truly love, is to ask the question: who people are and why they do what they do. And then I figured out, after having spent already so many years in music, I thought, well, you know, I actually can explore and find answers through music. Because with music I can delve into the minds of people that are both living and not living, that are near and far. And in fact, my job as a musician is to actually find as truthfully, as essentially as I could, who they were, what their voices were, and my job is to make their voices live in somebody else. 

HOOVER: You played 36 movements of Bach’s cello suites in 36 cities, and your music video of the prelude to “Cello Suite No. One in G Major,” which we heard at the beginning of the program, has been viewed more than seven million times on YouTube. How does music composed 300 years ago serve as a unifying force in today’s world?

MA: Well, I think when we look at humans, I believe that we are not only interpreting the world that we experience in the present, but we are the repository of generations. Dozens, hundreds, even thousands of years of what’s preceded us. And for example, our country is less than 250 years old. And Bach, whose music we just heard died before the United States was born. And and yet. If I look at his music, I realize, he was orphaned at a fairly young age. He was a religious man, he composed music– every Sunday he wrote a complete new piece, new cantata, and he’s trying to do something with his music. What I receive from the music is a great deal of comfort, and the kind of comfort that I think comes from not just someone saying, ‘I understand your pain,’ but from someone who actually says, ‘yeah, I understand what you’re going through, but I can also give you another perspective.’ And to have that kind of equilibrium in someone’s music, I think that’s something that all of us are looking for. 

HOOVER: About Bach’s music, you said, quote, “This music has been with me for 60 years. It’s seen me through times of stress, loss, joy and transition, and it’s connected me with others all over the world and helped me to understand life in new ways.” As someone who has, you know, kept up a frenetic pace, has performed in concert halls all over the world and who is the rock star among cellists. How has this last year been for you? Do you miss playing before large audiences in concert halls?

MA: Well, Margaret, it’s funny. I feel very comfortable dealing with people from pretty much anywhere. And so the screen — the virtual screen — I can make that jump. You know, if I Zoom into a hospital room, I can imagine what that patient is going through and not getting a good night’s sleep, because I’ve been in the hospital. So there’s something that’s — I know about hospitals, I can identify with. And, you know, so I’m not able to play in front of a large audience in a beautiful hall, but actually I’m able to communicate with whatever I have. 

HOOVER: I hear you saying that part of the meaningful exchange of your music hasn’t been shut down by that pandemic. 

MA: I know how lucky I am that my wife and I, you know, we’re sort of in — we have food on the table, you know. We have space so that we can actually be safe. That, I know, is not something that everybody has. And, I can zoom from a room in the house, you know, and I have someone to help me because I’m completely, hopelessly incompetent technically. 

HOOVER: [Laugher]

MA: So the fact that I can do that, allows me to then communicate with people — and in some ways– You know, there’s this word, it sounds very fancy, but it actually isn’t. An old friend coined it. It’s called punctuated equilibrium. What does that mean? It’s like in — in biology it means like, ‘when things change, sometimes they change really quickly. And then it slows down again and then starts.’ And in evolution, things can happen very quickly. This year has made a lot of things change very quickly — with some people disastrously. And for others, it’s been a surge in trying new ideas, trying new ways to connect, to communicate, trying new ways, or thinking more deeply. And so — and because I have those advantages of having food at the table, and friends and relationships over years of people willing to help, I’ve actually been able to do so much more than what I actually usually am able to do from traveling. 

HOOVER: And you’ve been quite prolific, actually, over this last year. You have a most recent project called “Songs of Comfort and Hope,” started with a self-shot video at the beginning of the pandemic where you posted Dvorak’s “Going Home.”

MA: Yup.

HOOVER: You continue to collaborate with others, including banjo player Rhiannon Giddens.

MA: Oh, my goodness, she’s so great. She’s so great – 


HOOVER: Tell me, has the collaborative process been accelerated in some way during the pandemic?

MA: Absolutely. I think, you know, the possibilities have actually multiplied. And again, I’m saying that with the caveat that absolutely a live event, there’s something communally achievable that is much less possible virtually. It’s not a substitute, but it’s something slightly different because of a different framing of the technological possibilities.

HOOVER: I mean, there are a lot of people who throughout the course of the pandemic have tried lesser collaborations. Singing “Happy Birthday” in a coordinated way to a loved one on Zoom is hard enough to sync. How are you able to actually collaborate musically with different instruments and different pieces? How do you do it?

MA: Well, it’s interesting when you find different ways to do it. And I think you’re absolutely right about singing “Happy Birthday,” because Zoom does not make it possible for two people to simultaneously sing and hear at the same time. So it’s the — the greatest disaster to try a group sing along on a live Zoom call. However, what you can do is if you each send in your part to a central location and someone puts it together, you can actually get something quite remarkable, as many groups have done. And if I work with one other person, that’s much easier because I can actually listen to their take on it and really focus on the tiny, tiny differences in timing. And if you repeated that process back and forth once or twice, it actually substitutes for almost a live performance, the way that you with a really good friend might want to say something and your friend actually says it for you because that person knows your mind so well. Right? I mean, that’s something I think you’ve experienced, I’ve experienced, and — and in music, you can do the same thing. And that’s a joy. 

HOOVER: Your “Songs of Comfort” actually has inspired many other musicians to collaborate in the way that you have collaborated during quarantine. And there’s an example of 24 students from around the world, cellists playing “The Swan.” 


MA: That’s beautiful. That’s wonderful.

HOOVER: Obviously they were inspired by you and “Songs of Comfort” and the collaborations that that you have initiated and shared.

MA: Well, you know, obviously, this is — it’s touching. It’s inspiring. It’s moving. What it makes me think is that there is this amazing inner motivation that’s, I think, been with humans all throughout human history, is the idea of connecting. And, so when I think about that, here are 24 people who have found a way – it’s great that they’re cellists, but they don’t need to be cellists. It’s great that they could play the  Saint-Saëns’ “Swan.” It doesn’t have to be that piece. But they found a way to create something really beautiful. They’ve agreed that ‘we’re going to do this thing and we’re going to split this into 24 segments and it’s going to actually sing.’ It’s not like, ‘I’m going to play my part and that’s it. You know, the rest, forget it. It’s you — you’re on your own.’ But they’ve agreed that there’s going to be a through line, there’s going to be a goal, and the essence of collaboration, for the sake of creating something beautiful, creating something meaningful, especially during this time, is amazing, and they have that all their lives. So I find that very inspiring.

HOOVER: William F. Buckley Jr., who hosted the original version of Firing Line for 33 years, was an amateur musician himself 

MA: He played the harpsichord. 

HOOVER: – and in 1989. Correct. So I don’t know if you’ve ever seen Buckley play the harpsichord. 

MA: I have! I have!

HOOVER: Let me just show you. Oh you have? 


MA: That’s amazing. You know something, Margaret? Through technology we’ve been able to complete a phrase that was started years ago and that was transferred through time and landed in this form today. That’s remarkable.

HOOVER: Pretty extraordinary. His guest, Schuyler Chapin, he was on just after this and he posed the question, ‘why aren’t there more amateur musicians who play for pleasure?’ Take a listen to this. 

BUCKLEY: Why is there that vast cemetery of people who gave up active participation in music, settling for an exclusively passive role, listening to professionals like these? What is it about our culture that discourages a continuing enjoyment of musical experience? 

CHAPIN: I don’t think it does discourage that. 

HOOVER: What do you think?

MA: I’m so glad you showed that clip and put that question on the line, because I can tell you, my very good friend Emanuel Ax and I are so devoted to change that present norm to what it used to be. And I’ll tell you what I mean by that: before recordings, the only way you could hear certain pieces is if you actually got the music, got some friends together and played it.

HOOVER: Yeah. Right. 

MA: And what happened when recordings came in, because we wanted to sell the recordings we would say, ‘Oh, you’re an amateur orchestra. You’re playing this Beethoven symphony. We don’t want you to do that anymore because here is this great recording of this great orchestra, and it’s so much better than you could possibly do it. Therefore, we don’t want you to play it. We just want you to buy the recording. That is a creative killer. 

HOOVER: Yeah –

MA: Because as soon as — and this is the same thing with our citizenship thing — until we participate, until we are fully engaged, it’s not our country, it’s somebody else’s because, you know, ‘The problems are too big for me. Leave it to the professionals.’ We have to be involved. And in the creative process, it was the amateurs, the people who were the funders and the creators all worked really closely together. I just, you know, so what Buckley and Schuyler Chapin – what they posed was a question of the moment. Obviously the recording industry has done so much in other ways that allowed for people to hear things that they weren’t able to hear before. But one unintended effect, which did have very serious consequences, resulted in this fracturing of what should be a united enterprise. 

HOOVER: You said after the murder of George Floyd that you thought maybe we needed, quote, “songs of change.” What did you mean by that?

MA: Well, I think one of the things that, again, you know, you referred to a very sad moment in our times and and and it’s a moment that struck such a deep chord amongst so many people. And one of the things that I try to do, sort of referring back to Bach, is to be absolutely sympathetic to whoever is feeling the pain, but also at the same time to say, ‘OK, how can we provide perspective during this time?’ And music has a part to play because music, I think, attracts both the head and the heart. It actually joins the head and the heart and we know good decisions are made when you use both your analytical skills and your empathetic skills. And if you only use one of them, your decisions will be less considered. But we can’t use both at the same time, which means that we actually have to use — be able to go back and forth a lot in order to get — gain that equilibrium, that kind of perspective that allows us to make the best decision given that everything is moving around us all the time. 

HOOVER: Thank you for joining me on Firing Line, Yo-Yo Ma. 

MA: Thank you so much Margaret for having me. 

HOOVER: We would love if you wanted to play something for our exit.

MA: Absolutely. I would love to. 

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