AAP staff report
Washington, D.C. (Dec. 4, 2011) — Yo Yo Ma was among the list of national treasures that were honored at the annual Kennedy Center Honors this past weekend. He was joined by other honorees including Broadway legend Barbara Cook; popular singer and songwriter Neil Diamond; Jazz legend Sonny Rollins; and actress Meryl Streep.
President Barack Obama greeted the honorees at a Reception in The East Room of the White House. The event accompanied the performances at the Kennedy Center.
“Tonight, we honor five giants from the world of the arts — not just for a single role or a certain performance, but for a lifetime of greatness” Obama said. “And just to be clear, this doesn’t mean that they’re over the hill. It just means they’ve come a long way.”
Obama noted that the honorees could not be more different and come from different generations, different walks of life, and present different talents. Yet, he said they belong here together because each of them has felt the need to express themselves and share that expression with the world.
“By expressing themselves, they help us learn something about ourselves,” he said. “They make us laugh. They move us to tears. They bring us together, and they push the boundaries of what we think is possible. And each of them has been blessed with an extraordinary gift. Tonight, we thank them for sharing that gift with us.”
Obama called Yo-Yo Ma, who was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2009, a regular at the White House for his many performances there. “I was telling him we need to give him a room,” he said, “The Blue Room, the Red Room, and the Yo-Yo Ma room. We keep inviting him, and for some reason, he keeps on coming back.”
The President spoke of Ma’s career that began with his first cello lesson when there wasn’t a chair short enough for him so he sat on three phone books. By the age of 4, he was learning the Bach suites, and by age 7, he was performing for President Kennedy in this very room.
“Today, he has 16 Grammys and is considered one of the greatest classical musicians alive,” said Obama.
The introduction went on to note that people like Ma just as much for his kind nature as for his music. Now one of the most innovative and versatile musicians in the world, Ma says his goal is to take listeners on a trip with him and make a lasting connection.
“His sense of curiosity has driven him to experiment from everything from the Argentine tango to Chinese folk music, and he has brought musicians from around the world together with the sheer force of his personality,” he said. “As he says, “If I know what music you love, and you know what music I love, we start out having a better conversation.
“The great Pablo Casals once described himself as a human being first, a musician second, and a cellist third. There is no doubt that Yo-Yo Ma is a great musician and a great cellist, but tonight we also honor him because he is a great human being.”
The event concluded with acknowledgments of the extraordinary contributions of the honorees. It was followed by a call for a commitment to support the arts in the interests of bettering ourselves and making the world a better place.
According to Yo-Yo Ma’s biography on the Kennedy Center Web site, the cellist was born on Oct. 7, 1955, in Paris, France. He was born to Chinese parents, first studying the cello with his father.
The family moved to New York, where he would spend most of his formative years. He studied the violin and the viola and even flirted with the bass, but the cello claimed his affections for good and at the age of seven he played for Presidents Dwight D. Eisenhower and John F. Kennedy.
Ma made his American television debut at eight, conducted by Leonard Bernstein. He studied with Leonard Rose at the Juilliard School, came under the tutorship of the great Pablo Casals and spent four summers with him in the Marlboro Music Festival. Seeking to expand his conservatory training, he graduated from Harvard University in 1976.
A joyous presence in the American cultural landscape for more than three decades, Ma stands as our country’s cellist-in-chief as well as the music world’s most enthusiastic teacher. His tone is luminous, his reach ambitious, his passion for music infectious.
As an appointed United Nations Messenger of Peace, he has organized teaching and mentoring programs, inspiring students across the world to love and honor music. His own collaborations go well beyond the traditional boundaries of classical music-notably in his Silk Road Project-celebrating the universality of music itself.
Ma has played for six American presidents, including the 2009 inauguration of President Obama. The roster of his collaborators is as long as it is surprising, from Emanuel Ax, Daniel Barenboim and Itzhak Perlman to Mark O’Connor and Bobby McFerrin, from Renee Fleming to Dave Brubeck and Wu Tong to Paquito D’Rivera, Mark Morris to James Taylor. Among his 16 Grammy Awards and counting is a Latin Grammy.
Ma divides his time among his engagements as soloist with orchestras throughout the world and his recital and chamber music activities, as well as adventurous forays into television and the social media. An exclusive Sony recording artist, he has expanded his recorded repertory beyond the classical to music of Appalachia as well as Brazil, China, and India.
All of his 75 Sony albums have entered the Billboard charts as classical best-sellers. He founded the Silk Road Project in 1998, establishing a growing network of creative partnerships inspired by the ancient route that stretched from the Mediterranean Sea to the Pacific Ocean.