Yo-Yo Ma awarded WHYY Lifelong Learning Award: ‘I’m doing my best’

The world-renowned cellist came to WHYY to be interviewed by Terry Gross. Of course, he brought his cello, Petunia.

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Yo-Yo Ma came to WHYY to be interviewed, and of course, he brought his cello.

It has a name: Petunia.

Petunia, made in 1733 by the Venetian luthier Domenico Montagnana, played the first song Ma ever learned at age 4: Bach’s “Bourrée.”

Ma said the piece has a simple pattern, making it easy for a child to pick up. Music came easily to him when he was young. Now, at 64, he must work at it more.

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“If I thought of an image of water, if I thought that the piece started before I began and I just joined the water… here’s what it ends up sounding like,” Ma said.

Yo-Yo Ma performs
World-renowned cellist Yo-Yo Ma performing onstage at WHYY on May 1, 2024. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

Under his now-mature bow, Bach’s once-stiffly bouncing patterns poured out to the approximately 250 people gathered to hear Terry Gross interview him. Attendees included Delaware Gov. John Carney and former Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf.

Ma attended WHYY on Wednesday night to receive the station’s annual Lifelong Learning Award, an honor previously awarded to Pres. Joe Biden and Dr. Anthony Fauci. The interview, in front of a live audience, was recorded for a future episode of “Fresh Air.”

Terry Gross and Yo-Yo Ma
World-renowned cellist Yo-Yo Ma was interviewed onstage at WHYY by “Fresh Air” host Terry Gross at the WHYY Lifelong Learning Award ceremony on May 1, 2024. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

Ma’s relationship with public broadcasting goes back almost 40 years: In 1985 he appeared on “Mr. Rogers Neighborhood” and developed a friendship with creator Fred Rogers. The next year he made several appearances on “Sesame Street” and was a guest on “Fresh Air With Terry Gross.”

At that time, he was barely 30 years old and was already considered an incomparable musician, as no other virtuoso on any instrument was as “complete, profound, compassionate and humane a musician as Ma,” according to Richard Dyer of the Boston Globe.

In the four decades since, Ma has cemented his position as the high bar for professionalism, virtuosity and warmth.

In the interview, Gross asked Ma about growing up a prodigy, who by the time he was 7 had played for luminaries and presidents, like Leonard Bernstein and John F. Kennedy.

When Gross asked if Ma as a child played to be rewarded and praised, he explained that he lived in a musical bubble with his parents and sister and did not put his talent in the context of the larger world. Only later did he have a sense of his ability.

“I always tell young people: If you’re going to learn music, or learn anything, make sure that whatever you put in your head before you’re 21 is stuff you really want to stay,” he said. “It’s like stuff you put in your bank account that you withdraw for the rest of your life.”

“That’s a great image,” Gross replied.

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Terry Gross and Yo-Yo Ma
Terry Gross interviewed celloist Yo-Yo Ma, who received the WHYY Lifelong Learning Award on May 1, 2024. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

As a mature artist, Ma is often asked to perform at public events that can be heavy with the weight of history: at the Paris Arc de Triomphe to commemorate the end of World War I, at the first anniversary of the New York attack on 9/11, at the anniversary of the bombing of the Boston Marathon.

Last week, he performed at the National Cathedral in Washington, D.C., during a memorial for seven people killed while working in Gaza for José Andrés World Kitchen while trying to provide food to Palestinians.

He said during that performance, his gaze was on José Andrés and the families of the deceased.

“There’s so much that we live through every day that’s a very fine line between the secular and sacred. It’s your choice,” Ma said. “You look at another human being. That’s a sacred person. You look at a plant. You breathe. It’s your choice on where to put your mind and heart.”

Yo-Yo Ma sits and speaks
World-renowned cellist Yo-Yo Ma onstage at WHYY, where he received the WHYY Lifelong Learning Award on May 1, 2024. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

“Music helps put us into that frame, where it becomes more possible to think certain thoughts,” he added.

Before the event at WHYY, Ma had only sat for a formal interview with Gross once — 38 years ago, when “Fresh Air” was still a fresh show (it went national in 1985). He appeared briefly again in 1991 for a short telephone segment about the start of the first Gulf War.

Yo-Yo Ma and Terry Gross
World-renowned cellist Yo-Yo Ma performed onstage at WHYY for Terry Gross during their interview at the WHYY Lifelong Learning Award ceremony May 1, 2024. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

When Gross brought up a question about Ma’s longevity and the consistency of his artistry, the cellist turned to the veteran radio personality as a kindred spirit.

“I was going to ask: How do you deal with burnout? How does anybody who does things for four decades avoid the trap of saying, ‘OK, I’m caught in a rut.’ How do you rejuvenate, regenerate and constantly be curious and active?” he asked Gross.

Ma’s answer to his own question is to forgive yourself.

“I don’t want to fall under the spell of what I call an industrial aesthetic, which is a way of saying perfection. That’s an unreasonable thing to ask of a human being,” Ma said. “What allows me to not be paralyzed is to just say, ‘I’m doing my best.’ And if it doesn’t work, you know my intention.”

Ma ended his stay at WHYY with an appeal to the audience to forgive his bad jokes and sometimes meandering stories.

“You’re here for an experience,” he told them. “Our being here, and being intentionally present, is the only thing that can possibly make this worthwhile.”

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