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Classical Album of the Week: What's So Essential about Yo-Yo Ma?

The Essential Yo-Yo Ma, released in 2005, is an essential 2-CD collection for every fan of the esteemed cellist.

September 24, 2018. Ever since Leonard Bernstein introduced him to televeision audiences as a 7-year-old prodigy, cellist Yo-Yo Ma has captured the public’s imagination over a 50-plus year career. From concert stage appearances, to Sesame Street, to American Presidential inaugurations, Yo-Yo Ma is a shining presence everywhere. Our album of the week showcases why.

The Essential Yo-Yo Ma, a double-CD set compiled and released in 2005 by Sony Classical, highlights some of the widely disparate musical explorations that Yo-Yo Ma has brought to the world. 

Contribute $150 or $12.50/month to WRTI during the Fall Member Drive and you'll receive this 2-CD set as our thanks!

CD 1 includes beloved works in the standard classical repertoire. The music of J.S. Bach leads off the album with Bach’s most recognizable work for solo cello, the Prelude from the Cello Suite in G major, played with beautiful intonation, sweep and color. Immediately following, Ma takes up a period-instrument cello with the The Amsterdam Baroque Orchestra in  “Largo,” from Vivaldi’s "Winter" from "The Four Seasons," as well as Ton Koopman’s arrangements of J.S. Bach’s chorales — “Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring” is particularly moving.


The remainder of CD 1 has a richly Romantic bent; Yo-Yo Ma plays the music of Saint-Saëns, Kreisler, Tchaikovsky, and Dvorak, with both piano and orchestral accompaniment. In the music of Rachmaninoff, Ma himself provides accompaniment — to jazz vocalist Bobby McFerrin’s unique re-styling of the “Vocalise.” We have a taste of Ma’s serious chamber music collaborations, including Emanuel Ax at the piano, in Shostakovich and Brahms.


But what makes Yo-Yo Ma unique is revealed in CD 2: exhilirating performances and collaborations from the world music sphere. He swings in Brazilian music, and compels in tango playing — “Cristal” with composer/pianist Camargo Mariano is electrifying. 


Ma’s cello playing sings and dances in the haunting sound world of American Appalachian music, with fiddler and mandolinist Mark O’Connor, and bass-player Edgar Meyer. Vocalist Allison Krauss’s pure soprano is complemented by Ma’s spare, lyrical style in Meyer’s arrangement of the Shaker tune “Simple Gifts.”


Ma’s performances with the Silk Road Ensemble brings us the intersection of East and West: a popular Italian Renaissance song, which would have traveled East along the Silk Road, and traditional Chinese and Indian music, which would have travelled West, bring us an understanding of how cultures sonically collide.


Compelling performances by Ma from film music (Ennio Morricone, Tan Dun, and David Wilde)  the Broadway stage (Loewe) and jazz (Bolling, Cole Porter) round out the album.


What ties together this hugely diverse repertoire, almost mind-boggling in its range? Ma’s virtuosity, combined with his imaginative, versatile and refined approach. 


Ma’s musical message of global ambassadorship, in playing that is soulful yet never heavy-handed, is beautifully displayed in our Album of the Week. It reminds us why Yo-Yo Ma will always remain essential. 

Debra's last day on the air at WRTI was September 21st, 2021. She's now the radio host for The Metropolitan Opera. Read more here.