By Isaac Hamlet
There are not many classical musicians whose names are accessible in the mainstream media, because they tend to be drowned out by the more “current” acts.
However, certain performers who pride themselves on excellence manage to break with the norm. Yo-Yo Ma is one of those select few.
At 7 p.m. March 5, the famed cellist will return to Hancher after 17 years. This visit will mark his ninth time performing at Hancher and his first in the new facility.
“He’s probably one of the leading ambassadors of classical music,” said Anthony Arnone, a University of Iowa associate professor of cello. “Then, later in life, he [started] being a leader in other ways.”
Originally from Hawaii, Arnone first saw Ma perform there. A teenager at the time, he recalled that Ma had also taught a master class while he was in town, and Arnone managed to snag the seat next to him.
The “other ways” in which Arnone refers to Ma being a leader are expressed through how he seems to be exude an air of genuine good far beyond the confines of the recital stage.
In recognition of this, Ma was named the Messenger of Peace to the United Nations in 2006. The job saw him act to help promote the organization among the younger generations.
These reasons are all part of the seemingly insatiable desire, among Iowa City’s cultural community, to keep bringing him back to town.
“He’s had a wonderful history of coming to the Hancher,” said Hancher Executive Director Charles Swanson. “Without a doubt, we wanted him to be a part of opening this new Hancher.”
The previous facility held 2,500 people; the new one can seat 1,800. Because all of Ma’s previous shows filled the house, there’s little surprise that the March 5 show is sold out.
Swanson — who began working at the theater the year after Ma’s first performance — recalls positive memories of the performer as a person.
“There was an earlier time when he’d connected with a student with cancer,” Swanson said. “He kept in touch with the student and helped her for a time.”
That student has since passed away.
Starting when he picked up the cello at the age of 4, Ma has spent roughly half a century exploring what can be done with the instrument.
In a 2013 interview in the New York Times, Ma said, “… playing the cello is what I wanted to do with my life. All the things I love about life outside music have to do with people, and playing the cello allows me to fulfill all those interests through music.”
He’s collaborated with musicians such as Bobby McFerrin and, most recently, Chris Thile and Edgar Meyer for an upcoming album, due out in April.
“I’ve been impressed that he branches out to places that weren’t his comfort zone,” Arnone said. “[He’s done] things like jazz and New World music.”
It is perhaps this fluidity and willingness to explore new things musically that has helped established Ma as not just a quintessential part of modern, classical performers but a must-listen for music lovers in general.
“He’s the best that we have in terms of cello players,” Arnone said. “If you’re listening to him, you’re hearing the best in the world.”