Jouer du violoncelle

Did you know that Yo-Yo Ma was born in France? I had no idea that the brilliant cellist was born in Paris on October 7, 1955. His family moved to New York when he was 5. His parents were both musicians; his father was a violinist and music professor, and his mother was a singer. By the time Ma was four, he had already studied the violin and the viola. He wanted to play the double bass, but the cello was a more manageable size for the little tyke. By the time he was 7, he was playing for Presidents. Ma enrolled at Julliard at age 9 and graduated from Harvard at only 21.

Ma’s prefered 18th century cello is nicknamed Petunia.  In 1999, Ma left this $2.5 million instrument in a New York cab, but he miraculously got it back undamaged. He has a second cello, an even older Stradivarius, the use of which was bequeathed to him by Jacqueline du Pré. The actual owner is the Vuitton Foundation, owned by Frenchman Bernard Arnault. And just for kicks, he also owns a modern carbon-fiber cello.

Another fact I didn’t know about Ma was that in addition to masterful classical recordings, he has been featured in numerous movie scores: Seven Years in Tibet, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, Master and Commander, and Memoirs of a Geisha. He’s won the Grammy award 15 times for his classical repertoire. In addition to Baroque music, he loves bluegrass, traditional Chinese music, Argentinean tangos, among other styles.

Probably one of his most moving performances was his accompaniment to the reading of the names of those who died on September 11 at the World Trade Center on the one year anniversary of that dark day. He helped open the 2002 Winter Olympic Games and played with a quartet to mark Obama’s inauguration. This was a rather controversial performance; the musicians did play live, but the music that was actually broadcast had been recorded two days earlier as the January cold could have damaged the instruments and snapped strings. On a lighter occasion, he accompanied Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper at a gala, where they played a piano and cello duet of “With A Little Help From My Friends,” the single most interesting moment of Harper’s political life.

Today’s expression, jouer du violoncelle (zjooay due vee-oh-lohn-cell), means “to play the cello.”  Whether he plays for princes, presidents, or puppets, Yo-Yo Ma is widely considered to be the greatest cellist of the modern day. He also seems to be a genuinely nice man, which is not always the case with geniuses.

The Goat Rodeo Sessions

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About Patricia Gilbert

Patricia Gilbert is a French teacher. She's Canadian, lives in the United States, but dreams of living in France. Follow her on Instagram @Onequalitythefinest and on Twitter @1qualthefinest.
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One Response to Jouer du violoncelle

  1. Cliff Gilbert says:

    I didn’t know he was born in France. Interesting. He has made a lot of recordings (obviously). One of my favorites is the Rachmaninov Cello Sonata in G minor which he performed with Emmanuel Ax. The last two movements in particular are very beautiful.

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