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By Amy Cassaniti

Many modern aficionados of classical music think that the musician, Yo-Yo Ma, is the GOAT (greatest of all time) cellist. Having played the cello since he was four years old, Ma has a repertoire that includes classical, traditional Chinese melodies, Argentinian tangos, Brazilian, contemporary, even American bluegrass. Throughout his career, Ma has demonstrated time and again the versatility of the cello and the versatility of his playing.

Despite being the most famous American classical musician alive today, Ma wasn’t born an American. Ma was born in Paris, France on October 7, 1955. His parents were both native Chinese who had migrated to France prior to Ma’s birth. Both of Ma’s parents were musicians. Ma’s mother was a singer, and Ma’s father was a violinist and professor of music. Ma only arrived in the U.S. at the age of seven when his family moved from France to New York City.

As a very small child, Ma played the violin, viola, and piano. Ma claims that he wanted to play the double bass due to its large size, but a compromise was reached, and he settled on the cello. Before his eighth birthday, he had already performed for two American presidents: Dwight Eisenhower and John F. Kennedy. Recognized as a prodigy, Ma finished his early education at the Professional Children’s School before attending Julliard School of Musicfollowed by Harvard College. Ma has received every accolade awarded to a musician including multiple Grammys, honorary degrees, the Kennedy Center Honor, the Presidential Medal of Freedom, even People magazine’s 2001 “Sexiest Classical Musician.”

Now about that other GOAT – The Goat Rodeo. In 2011, Ma joined musicians Stuart Duncan, Edgar Meyer, and Chris Thile to collaborate on a musical project combining classical and American bluegrass sounds. They named the resulting album, The Goat Rodeo Sessions. A rodeo attempting to corral goats would be chaotic and challenging, so according to modern slang, a “goat rodeo” is an unruly circumstance where many things must go right for the situation to work. Ma and his fellow musicians felt that in order to combine classical and bluegrass sounds, many things would have to go right in order to get the right sound. Their efforts paid off. In 2012, The Goat Rodeo Sessions won the Grammy for best folk album.

Click on the link below to hear Yo-Yo Ma and his fellow musicians playing “Attaboy” from The

Goat Rodeo Sessions.

One last interesting fact about Yo-Yo Ma. Ma never plays alone. Ma’s cello, crafted in 1733 by Domenico Montagnana and worth $2.5 million, is named “Petunia.” Following a master class in Salt Lake City, a student asked if Ma had a nickname for his cello. He said no but asked her to choose a name for it. She chose Petunia, and Ma calls his favorite cello, Petunia to this day.


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