Yo-Yo Ma (born October 7, 1955) is a French-born American cellist, virtuoso, orchestral composer of Chinese descent, and winner of multiple Grammy Awards, the National Medal of Arts in 2001 and the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2011. He is one of the most famous cellists of the modern age.
At a very young age, Ma began studying violin, and later viola, before finding his true calling by taking up the cello in 1960 at age four. The child prodigy began performing before audiences at age five, and performed for Presidents John F. Kennedy and Dwight D. Eisenhower when he was seven. At age eight, he appeared on American television with his sister, Yeou-Cheng Ma, in a concert conducted by Leonard Bernstein. By fifteen years of age, Ma had graduated from Trinity School in New York and appeared as a soloist with the Harvard Radcliffe Orchestra in a performance of the Tchaikovsky “Rococo Variations.”
Ma studied at the Juilliard School with Leonard Rose and briefly attended Columbia University before ultimately enrolling at Harvard University. Prior to entering Harvard, Ma played in the Marlboro Festival Orchestra under the direction of nonagenarian cellist and conductor Pablo Casals.
However, even before that time, Ma had steadily gained fame and had performed with most of the world's major orchestras. His recordings and performances of Johann Sebastian Bach's “Cello Suites” recorded in 1983 and again in 1994–1997 are particularly acclaimed. Ma received his bachelor's degree from Harvard in 1976. In 1991, he received an honorary doctorate from Harvard.
Ma currently plays with his own Silk Road Ensemble, which has the goal of bringing together musicians from diverse countries all of which are historically linked via the Silk Road, and records on the Sony Classical label.
Ma's primary performance instrument is the cello nicknamed Petunia, built by Domenico Montagnana in 1733. This cello, more than 270 years old and valued at $2.5 million, was lost in the fall of 1999 when Ma accidentally left the instrument in a taxicab in New York City. It was later recovered undamaged.
Another of Ma's cellos, the Davidov Stradivarius, was previously owned by Jacqueline du Pré who passed it to him upon her death, and owned by the Vuitton Foundation. It was until recently set up in a Baroque manner, since Ma exclusively played Baroque music on it. He also owns a cello made of carbon fiber by the Luis and Clark company of Boston.
In 1997 he was featured on John Williams' soundtrack to the Hollywood film, “Seven Years in Tibet.” In 2000, he was heard on the soundtrack of “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon,” and in 2003 on that of “Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World.” He collaborated with Williams again on the original score for the 2005 film “Memoirs of a Geisha.” His music was featured in the 2010 documentary “Jews and Baseball: An American Love Story,” narrated by Academy Award winner Dustin Hoffman.
Yo-Yo Ma has also worked with world-renowned Italian composer Ennio Morricone and has recorded Morricone's compositions of the Dollars Trilogy including “The Good, the Bad and the Ugly.” He also has over 75 albums, 15 of which are Grammy Award winners.
Ma was named Peace Ambassador by United Nations then Secretary-General Kofi Annan in January 2006.
On November 3, 2009, President Obama appointed Ma to serve on the President's Committee on the Arts and Humanities.