Thursday, May 5, 2016
May 5, 2016: Classical Music Icons: Yo-Yo Ma
[On May 5th, 1891, Carnegie Hall—first known as Music Hall—opened in New York City. In the 125 years since, the hall has become synonymous with classical music in America. So this week I’ll AmericanStudy five iconic figures from that tradition, leading to a special weekend tribute to some 21st century classical musicians and composers!]
Three very American moments (and even though he was born in Paris to Chinese immigrant parents, they moved to New York when he was 7, he’s lived in the US ever since, and I’m AmericanStudying him!) in the career of one of our greatest classical musicians.
1) A public and presidential performance: In November 1962, as a 7 year old child prodigy, Ma performed in a special concert for President John F. Kennedy and his wife Jackie, along with former President Dwight Eisenhower, opera star Marian Anderson, poet Robert Frost, and many other celebrities. And oh yeah, he was conducted in that performance by perhaps the greatest American conductor, Leonard Bernstein. The moment stands alongside Shirley Temple on those stairs as one of the most striking and impressive youthful artistic performances in American culture (and without any awkward minstrelsy to get in the way of our appreciation for it). But it also reflects the complex connection of celebrity to artistry that has for so long now dominated—or at least heavily influenced—our cultural conversations. Was Ma truly an American artistic talent before he performed on such a public and famous stage?
2) The Tonight Show: Or maybe even that performance wasn’t enough, and it was only two years later, when a now 9 year old Ma performed on Johnny Carson’s Tonight Show in December 1964 (I can’t find a video of the performance, unfortunately), that he truly became an American musical star. Ma was introduced on the program by violinist Isaac Stern, himself an immigrant American (his Jewish family had immigrated from the Ukraine in 1921, when Stern was only 10 months old) and an advocate of Ma’s from his time in Paris on. I don’t mean to suggest that you’re not a real classical musician unless you’ve performed on a late night talk show—that’s obviously not the medium in which most American classical music gets performed or heard, nor a necessary barometer for its quality. But as with any artistic genre, those select few classical artists who can cross over to all branches of American media have reached a new plateau—and Ma did so before he was even in double digits.
3) The Committee of 100: I could of course fill this spot (and many subsequent blog posts) with other noteworthy performances and career highlights of Ma’s. But like so many late 20th century American artists, Ma has also worked to contribute to social and cultural conversations well beyond his chosen artistic field, and perhaps his most influential such effort was his prominent role in the 1990 founding of the Committee of 100. As that website notes, the committee is composed of “Extraordinary Chinese Americans” dedicated to two distinct but interconnected goals: “Ensuring Full Inclusion in America” and “Advancing US-China Relations.” As such, I would connect the Committee’s important late 20th and 21st century work to that of one of my favorite 19th century Americans, Yung Wing—but since Wing’s diplomatic and educational careers provided natural fits for his cross-cultural Chinese and Chinese-American efforts, I find it even more impressive that Yo-Yo Ma has extended so fully outside of his professional world in order to contribute as well to those cultural and national goals.
Last icon tomorrow,
PS. What do you think? Other classical music greats you’d highlight?