Toronto Star

Music truly resonates at times like this

When the pandemic hit, Yo-Yo Ma asked himself: ‘What is music for?’


Yo-Yo Ma, the Paris-born, New York-raised, world-renowned cellist, has packed a lot of living into his 65 years.

He’s recorded more than 150 albums, earned 18 Grammy Awards and performed in every place imaginable around the world.

But until the pandemic hit this year, there was one thing that Ma had never experience­d: regular business hours.

“I’m realizing for the first time that I have a 9-to-5 job, Monday to Friday and that the weekends are off,” he said from his Cambridge, Mass., home during a Zoom interview to promote “Songs of Comfort and Hope,” his latest album with British pianist Kathryn Stott.

“I can’t wait for the weekends,” he laughed. “I always used to work the weekends and I worked nights. I never could hold a day job. I now know what a day job feels like.”

Since his last performanc­e in front of an audience in New York on March 10, Ma has been spending his days “reading, with family, friends just trying to keep it together, that’s fulltime.”

(He has 45 years of deep ties with Toronto, ranging from studying here with classical pianist Anton Kuerti and filming the Emmy-winning Rhombus Media series “Inspired by Bach” to assisting in the creation of the Music Garden on

the Toronto waterfront and helping the Toronto Symphony Orchestra celebrate its 90th anniversar­y. He also won the 1999 Glenn Gould Prize and Yo-Yo Ma Lane, off Queens Quay near Spadina, is named after him.)

Although he’s occasional­ly performed virtual concerts for front-line health workers and educationa­l institutio­ns in the interim, Ma admits his curtailed concert activity has found him contemplat­ing the role of music in our lives a bit more intensely.

“Maybe this is age-related, but what is music for?” Ma queried. “What is its purpose? What is its meaning? They’re the same

old questions, but kind of amplified: essentiall­y, how can we help?

“I’ve been thinking of music as one of the things we’ve invented that actually helps us survive and thrive. It gets to our state of mind. It helps us: it’s energy that is meant to do something for us. So, in a way, I’ve thought of it as a service. And in this sense, during the pandemic, I was thinking, ‘Gee, the role of the musician often is to ease the transition between life and death.’

“There was a doctor who wrote about caring for his dying father … What he realized was that the thing he could do best

for him was to ask him what he wants, what makes him comfortabl­e, because it’s beyond ‘This will keep you alive, this will save you.’ And I think, sometimes in that sense, that’s what music can do.”

It was this thought process that led, in part, to the creation of “Songs of Comfort and Hope,” a 21-song album that includes “Ol’ Man River” from the musical “Showboat,” “Over the Rainbow” from “The Wizard of Oz,” the traditiona­l Zulu lullaby “Thula Baba,” Francis Poulenc’s “Les Chemins de l’Amour” and Antonin Dvorak’s “Goin’ Home” among its selections.

The concept for the album

came from some of those earlier virtual performanc­es, which eventually reached an audience of 18 million people.

In the past, “whenever there was a natural disaster someplace — an earthquake or tsunami — we would send some music and words to people that we know there, like a postcard,” Ma said of himself and his colleagues.

“I had my cello in the office that day and my colleague Jonathan said, ‘Let’s do songs of comfort and hope.’ I said, ‘Fine, just take out your smartphone and I’ll play a couple of songs.’

“Then it became much bigger and I started to do this from home and Zooming into hospital rooms and health workers and essential workers, students, teachers, graduation­s, high schools, middle schools, colleges and missed graduation ceremonies: individual­s who needed something.”

When Stott, a friend and colleague for about 40 years, mentioned cancelling her festival in Australia, “I said, should we do something not unlike ‘The Songs of the Arc Of Life’ that we did in 2015? We can do something that might be meaningful to people around the world.”

Ma says Stott did the majority of the work while he made suggestion­s and enlisted “my buddy,” British/Australian pianist Stephen Hough, for a couple of arrangemen­ts, while Stott reached out to Pulitzer Prize-winning violinist and composer Caroline Shaw for arrangemen­t help.

“The hard part was not to include certain songs, because we loved so many,” said Ma.

It should be noted that a conversati­on with Yo-Yo Ma is not a typical interview. An interviewe­r is requested to provide biographic­al informatio­n because the cellist likes to know a bit about his interlocut­or.

In my case, he asked about a spinal tumour I had in college that curtailed my ambition to be a profession­al pianist. It was an experience that robbed me of some of the feeling in my left hand and left me in a temporary state of paralysis to the point where I had to learn how to walk again.

The event was a major catalyst toward pursuing a writing career.

“Let me ask you a personal question,” he said within the first five minutes of the interview. “Having gone through something so incredibly dramatic, and having to live with the consequenc­es of giving up playing, and remaking and reforming your life, how does that give you perspectiv­e on a pandemic year?”

I told him I had always appreciate­d life, so my attitude and gratitude hadn’t changed, but I was disappoint­ed in some of the human behaviour I was witnessing: people refusing to wear masks and therefore, in my opinion, showing a callous disregard for others’ safety. I told him I was surprised there are people who do not believe COVID-19 exists.

“Obviously when someone doesn’t believe something, there’s a breakdown in the ladder of trust,” Ma said. “At some point, someone must have said, ‘Ok, those guys, they’re off my list. I won’t listen to anything that they say anymore because they blew it … I’m not going to listen anymore. And then you can’t get to the next step.

“I wonder when something like that happens, because when you and I say, ‘We do believe in what people tell us,’ that’s because that ladder is intact. Somehow it was successful­ly built or maybe there’s redundancy so if we get screwed by somebody, and you had a terrible doctor, but that doesn’t make you say all of medicine is terrible.”

He said he could relate to me because when he was younger he had scoliosis, a sideways curvature of the spine that had also threatened his career.

“I actually had a total spinal fusion when I was 25 and I was in a cast for six months,” Ma said.

“It made me think differentl­y. If you’re lucky enough to be in a state where you’re not about to be kicked out of your apartment or scrounging for food and worried about immediate safety, I think it makes you think about a lot of things: what is important and what’s meaningful — and just being grateful.

“I knew about it when I was 19 and there was a risk that the operation wouldn’t work. My wife married me, knowing I was going to have that operation, which I’m really deeply grateful for.

“Also, I felt that if it did not work I was going to do something else. I was OK with saying, ‘Well, I’m 25, I’ve done a bit of playing, loved it, had a good time and thank goodness, not that I was such a great student, but I did go to college; I’ll find something.’ ”

Ma explained why he’s so prolific at making albums (“Songs of Comfort and Hope,” out Friday, is his third release of 2020): it’s an opportunit­y to learn about humankind.

“I’m generally a curious kind of guy and I get extremely stimulated when I meet new people or I’m introduced to new ways of thinking and new ways of expression. I’ve found that music is a really good way to explore human nature.”

 ?? MONDO WANG ?? Yo-Yo Ma says his latest album, recorded with British pianist Kathryn Stott, aims to give people comfort and hope during the crisis.
MONDO WANG Yo-Yo Ma says his latest album, recorded with British pianist Kathryn Stott, aims to give people comfort and hope during the crisis.

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