Cellist Yo-Yo Ma talks about 'moving infinity' with his almost 300-year-old cello: NPR

Yo-Yo Ma performs in Washington, DC on June 25, 2018.

Larry French/Getty Images North America


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Larry French/Getty Images North America

About 25 years ago, acclaimed cellist Yo-Yo Ma was playing in Salt Lake City when a high school student asked him if his cello, which dates to the 18th century, had a name. That didn't happen, but Mother made a deal with the student: he would play her a piece of music, and if she could think of a name for his instrument, maybe he would keep it.

“And so I played a piece of music, [and] she said, “Petunia,” he recalls. “And the name stuck.”

A child prodigy, Ma began learning Bach's famous cello suites when he was just four years old. He recorded the Suites three times: once in his twenties, once in his forties, and again in his sixties. He compares each performance or recording to the flow of a river, which is always changing.

“You always call it the same river, but the water is never the same,” he says. “In a world where we can measure everything – or we think we can measure everything – how wonderful is it that you can have… poetry or music that actually makes you think you're touching infinity.”

Over the course of his career, Ma's played for nine U.S. presidents and received 19 Grammys and the Presidential Medal of Freedom. He recently played at the memorial for the seven World Central Kitchen aid workers who were murdered in Gaza last month.

Ma loves music, but he remembers reading a passage in a book by Spanish cellist Pablo Casals that stuck with him: “[Casals] said in this book that I am a human being first, a musician second, and a cellist third,” says Ma. 'From my background and when I read this from my hero, I thought: that man I like. … [That’s] the right order for me.”

Listen to the full Fresh air interview, featuring Ma Petunia, via the audio link above.

Therese Madden and Susan Nyakundi produced and edited this interview for broadcast. Bridget Bentz, Molly Seavy-Nesper and Zach Thompson adapted it for the web.

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