Penn State College of Arts and Architecture
Center for the Performing Arts at Penn State

Short and sweet: A Q&A with Yo‑Yo Ma

By Audrey Sakhnovsky

With Yo-Yo Ma and pianist Kathryn Stott’s Nov. 3 performance at Penn State’s Eisenhower Auditorium drawing closer, excitement is ramping up as ticketholders prepare to see the world-famous cellist and his longtime colleague in concert.

The internet is rife with interviews and biographies describing the life of the revered cellist, but Ma is more than just a recognizable name. The musician can reference multiple Grammys and a discography featuring more than 100 albums, but he’s also a philanthropist, a grandfather and a jokester.

While his philanthropic work has spanned many decades with performances for multiple U.S. presidents and celebrities, Ma is still enthralled by the virtuous actions of the everyman. “I am constantly struck by the quiet heroism of people who will never be known, who do things because they think it’s the right thing to do,” he said.

Ma has dedicated much of his time to doing the right thing. He is known for his educational programs for students and others, and he’s reached out to children via appearances on PBS children’s programming.

While most of Ma’s causes focus on the transformative power of music, many people might not be aware of his involvement in a musical preservation project with a Pennsylvania connection. Earlier in 2017, Ma joined an effort to rehome the Point Counterpoint II, a world-traveling concert barge. Since the mid 1970s, Mars, Pa.-based music director Robert Boudreau and his American Wind Symphony Orchestra have called the 195-foot-long floating stage home.

“At a time when our national conversation is so often focused on division, we can ill afford to condemn to the scrap heap such a vibrant ambassador for our national unity. I humbly ask that your readers join Robert and me in finding a new home,” Ma wrote in an August letter to The New York Review of Books.

In addition, with his Silkroad organization and Silk Road Ensemble, Ma works to facilitate the fusing of music among cultures in the hopes of getting “old and new (to) work together in the same space.”

In spite of his recognized efforts to make the world a better place, the cellist maintains a humbleness. “Just watching my wife, children and grandson” is enough to keep his feet on the ground, he said. And though he is an esteemed, prominent figure in a field of a serious nature, Ma is still able to bring a liveliness to his work with colleagues.

“There is humor, playfulness and lightness in everything, especially when things are serious,” Ma said. “Comedy and tragedy exist side by side.”

Ma additionally answered a few questions posed by the Center for the Performing Arts at Penn State.

Center: With your own children, did you encourage them to play an instrument or did your career influence their own relationship with music?

Ma: They sing, play the piano and love lots of different music.

Center: What are your top three favorite music-related movies or your favorite movie scores?

Ma: John Williams, “Star Wars”; Ennio Morricone’s Italian westerns; “2001: A Space Odyssey”

Center: Who is your favorite non-classical musician?

Ma: Wu Tong (rock and traditional Chinese wind instrument musician)

Center: Your favorite non-classical movie genre?

Ma: The next genre I fall in love with.

Audrey Sakhnovsky, a Penn State junior double-majoring in journalism and English and minoring in psychology, is a marketing and communications intern at the Center for the Performing Arts.