Yo-Yo Ma’s Texas connections run more than skin deep

03/30/2014 12:00 AM

03/26/2014 1:45 PM

Cellist Yo-Yo Ma, who will perform at the Fort Worth Symphony Orchestra’s Gala Concert on Thursday, hasn’t played often in Fort Worth, but there are connections.

A big one is his longtime friendship with Miguel Harth-Bedoya, the music director of the FWSO. “I have worked closely with him over the years,” Ma said in a recent phone interview.

“I call him the ideal man. He told me he washes his own clothes. He built his own addition [to his house]. He went and got the permit, designed it, and built his own studio. He’s great with his children, his wife, and the orchestra.

“I thought, ‘Oh my gosh, this guy does everything; he’s the perfect man.’ ”

Ma’s debut with the Fort Worth Symphony was decades ago, before the Harth-Bedoya era.

“I first played with the Fort Worth Symphony when John Giordano was the music director. I was 16 years old. Now I’m really feeling old!”

Actually, Ma is 58.

Beyond Fort Worth, Ma has a Texas connection that was a big surprise to him when it was discovered a few years ago. The cellist gave a DNA sample for a PBS program devoted to the ancestry of Americans. A genetic analysis showed that he and actress Eva Longoria, who was born in Corpus Christi, have some common relatives.

Longoria was surprised, too. “She said, ‘Is Yo-Yo Mexican?’ ” Ma says with a laugh.

The cellist is very much an international artist. He was born in Paris to Chinese immigrants. When he was 5, the family moved to New York. Now Ma lives in Massachusetts (he and his wife, Jill Hornor, have two children). As probably the most famous cellist alive, Ma tours all over the globe.

This background may help explain Ma’s founding of the Silk Road Ensemble, which is named for a cultural and economic conduit for goods and ideas that existed from China to the Mediterranean for more than 1,500 years. The ensemble brings together artists from many nations for educational residencies and festival performances.

As might be expected, Ma is a fan of Harth-Bedoya’s somewhat similar Caminos del Inka project, which is devoted to performing and promoting music of the Americas.

Like most professional musicians, Ma started very early. His father, a violinist, started Ma on that instrument when he was a very small child.

“I didn’t like it [the violin] and it didn’t like me,” Ma says. “When I was 4 years old, I saw a huge double bass and thought that would be great. But it was too big. So as a compromise I went with the cello. Somehow it fit; somehow it spoke to me. For some people, the instrument makes the difference. You’ll plod along on the piano, and then one day you get a trumpet and suddenly it transforms your feelings about music.”

Ma credits one of his teachers, the prominent cellist Leonard Rose, with having a big influence on his career. “He was my beloved cello teacher,” Ma says. “What a difference it makes when someone believes in you. I wasn’t sure I was anything special. I didn’t necessarily have a huge amount of confidence. But he gave me confidence. He said, ‘I believe in you; I was shy, too.’ It was one of the greatest gifts I have received from anybody.”

Although Ma wasn’t born in China, he has visited it a number of times and has “tons” of relatives there. His known ancestry stretches back centuries and includes, he says, numerous teachers and generals.

Asked what his Chinese name means in English, he replies: “ ‘Yo’ means ‘friend’; ‘Ma’ means ‘horse.’ Therefore I am a friendly neigh-sayer.”

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