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Classical New England's Yo-Yo Ma CD Recommendations

Monday, May 14, 2012
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Yo-Yo Ma's discography encompasses over 30 years of recordings. Some have set a new standard for concert repertoire and some have broken new musical ground. As a body, they represent an artist of seemingly limitless possibility. Here are some favorites from the staff of Classical New England.

To purchase CD's or downloads of any of Yo-Yo Ma's recordings, visit Ariama.


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Yo-Yo and Elmo

About six years ago I was excited to be going to a private interview with Yo-Yo Ma. I had interviewed him a number of times through the years, but that didn't mean I didn't get the butterflies of anticipation. I fed my little boy, gathered my notes, and was ready to bolt out the door as soon as my new babysitter arrived. Except that she didn't. She phoned and made some excuse. All I knew was that I had to leave NOW, that I didn't have anyone else to leave my child with and that meant taking a 4-year old boy with me to this important interview.

We gathered a quiet stuffed animal toy and headed out to the car. I tried to impress on him that we were going to meet a really important musician, highly respected, an international superstar. "And his name is Yo-Yo Ma." My child stretched out his arm, palm up and said in a serious tone "Yo-Yo Ma? I already know him, Mommy!" "You do?" "Uh huh...he's the one who did music with Elmo on Sesame Street."

Yo-Yo Ma played part of Dvorak's Cello Concerto with Elmo, the little red monster, back in 2006. Maybe you'd like to hear the whole thing on his recording entitled Concertos from the New World.

- Laura Carlo


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Grace and Gratitude

A year ago Yo-Yo Ma visited the station where I was working at the time. When he arrived, a crush of people clustered at the doorway of the overheated room to meet him. Over the next 20 minuites or so I watched him remarkably making his way around the packed room: smiling easily, joking and shaking hands with everyone who wanted to share a story or memory, or get a signature - and that was nearly everyone in the place.

Very soon it was time for him to leave, and I followed him out as he was briskly ushered from the room. Despite the hurry, he paused as soon as he realized I worked in the radio station’s music department. He turned to me, clasped my hand between both of his and looked me directly in the eye to tell me with great intensity how valuable my work is. (My work!) The rest of the fast walk to the front door was accompanied by his personal, heartfelt thoughts about the importance and necessity of public radio, in light of recent threats to Federal funding. And then, within a few minutes time, he was gone and off to his next engagement.

When I look back on that memory I always think of the music playing during the reception: Yo-Yo's Obrigado Brazil both captured the feel of that warm and humid spring evening, and summarized the grace and gratitude that live at the center of both his musicianship and his beautiful human spirit.

- Cheryl Willoughby


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A Neglected Masterpiece

I met Yo-Yo Ma for first time when he came to the BSO for an appearance in February 1993. It was to be a joyous occasion, featuring the Boston premiere of a highly acclaimed new work written for Yo-Yo Ma by the Newton-based composer Steven Albert. Sadly, though, Albert had died in a car crash on Route 6 on Cape Cod the previous December.

Since then, Yo-Yo has participated in many BSO premieres, including works by John Williams, Christopher Rouse, Leon Kirchner, John Harbison, and Oswaldo Golijov. But the Cello Concerto by Steven Albert, one of the very last works the composer completed before that accident, stands out as something special for me. Of the many fabulous recordings by Yo-Yo Ma, the Steven Albert Concerto is the most unjustly neglected.

- Brian Bell


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An Encounter of Great Minds

Recently I read last year’s biography of Apple Computer founder Steve Jobs, written by Walter Isaacson. Jobs was one of the most brilliant minds of our time, and his tastes in music gravitated towards other brilliant minds of our time, primarily Bob Dylan and The Beatles.

Isaacson reports that, when Jobs met Yo-Yo Ma in 1981, they struck up a friendship, Jobs being “deeply moved by artists who displayed purity.” Eventually Ma visited Jobs’s home in California, playing Bach in the kitchen. Jobs responded by saying, “Your playing is the best argument I’ve ever heard for the existence of God, because I don’t really believe a human alone can do this.”

No matter what your position is on the existence of God, there’s no denying the power of Yo-Yo Ma’s Bach.

- Brian McCreath


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"I just try to play in tune.”

In 2005 we invited the three musicians of the Diaz family into our studios for a live performance – violinist Gabriela, violist Roberto, and cellist Andrés. Their parents had come in to watch from the control booth, and their father said to me, “We have a photograph of you hanging in our house!”

I was alarmed. Then he reminded me: Yo-Yo Ma had given a cello masterclass a couple of decades earlier at the New England Conservatory. Andrés was a fellow student and he asked me to accompany him in the Saint-Saëns Cello Concerto. And while I didn’t remember anyone snapping a picture, I do remember the positive charge in the air during that class, and the supple, natural way that Yo-Yo turned his phrases when he demonstrated. Organic. Colorful. Communicative. Even though I was busy trying to act like an orchestra (I hate piano reductions!) it was just incredibly easy to follow Yo-Yo Ma.

Years and years later, after I’d gone into radio, he would say things in interviews like “Well, you know, I just try to play in tune.” Right. And then he’d describe his joy in immersing himself in the sound worlds of cultures and musicians that are foreign to him, trying to learn musical languages that are not easy. For him, he says, the test of a musician is how quickly he can catch on to those languages.

He caught on to Andrés and me instantly. And handed us an exquisite collection of ideas and solutions. It’s an incredibly generous way to live a life.

- Cathy Fuller


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An All-Encompassing Approach

His musical performances are brilliant, but over the past few weeks I’ve had a great time listening to the words of Yo-Yo Ma. As I’ve prepared interview excerpts for broadcast during this “Month of Ma,” it’s fascinating to hear his take on so many things: from caring for his cello to working with vocalist Bobby McFerrin and violinist Mark O’Connor to the enormous value of working with Mr. Rogers and Sesame Street.

Through it all, what shines through is the joy he feels from sharing music with others, and way in which he integrates all these various aspects of his life: “I’m not good at thinking in categories,” he says. “I don’t think about, ‘this is classical music, and this is now contemporary music or adult contemporary music, or baroque music’ – it’s all a form of expression. …I think what all musicians want to do is to be inside the music, is to be in the moment.”

It’s an all-encompassing approach to his art, reflected perfectly in “The Essential Yo-Yo Ma” - a great feast of special moments in music!

- Alan McLellan

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A Latter-Day Basie

San Diego, California, summer of 2005. Rock-concert electricity punctuates the Civic Theatre, a 3,000 seat barn of place prone to B-list rockers and touring Broadway shows. But this time, the Bics are getting flicked (really!) for … a 22-piece world music "big band" led by the redoubtable Yo-Yo Ma, a latter-day Basie directing his assemblage of Silk Road superstars not from a piano bench, but from behind his cello … or, in the spirit of the music, occasionally from the morin khuur, a traditional bowed-string instrument from Mongolia.

And truly it is a spectacular ensemble, featuring such dazzling performers as Chinese pipa virtuoso Wu Man, Indian percussionist Sandeep Das, and Iranian kamancheh (think small fiddle) artist Kayhan Kalhor. Together they impress not only for their incredible musicianship, but for the remarkable compositions they contributed to the CD that is the basis for this live concert: Silk Road Journeys: Beyond the Horizon.

And whereas the initial foray by Yo-Yo and his Silk Road Ensemble (When Strangers Meet) had the feel of a noble experiment, the follow-up was something altogether: epic, virtuosic, and positively symphonic. It's nothing less then a sweeping soundtrack to a journey from the Far East through Central Asia to Europe's shore, as suggested by such evocative titles as "Distant Green Valley," "Summer in the High Grassland," or "Night at the Caravanseri." Truly Beyond the Horizon … and off the hook!

- Ben Roe


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Classical Music Ambassador

During a recent trip to California I met and played with a lot of fellow cellists. And as I visited these colleagues in music schools and private homes, it seemed that there was always a picture of the resident cellist posing with Yo-Yo Ma: on a refrigerator door with a five-year-old wielding a quarter-size cello and a broad grin; on a conservatory bulletin board with a beaming student in concert dress; exquisitely framed with a beloved cello teacher, hung in pride of place on the wall above the piano.

Maybe it’s too easy to take Yo-Yo for granted. He’s seemingly everywhere, the classical music ambassador to the world. In 1999 he brought the world to us in Solo, a collection of pieces for a single cello. A sample of the titles gives you a sense of the far-flung origins of the music: Mark O’Connor’s Appalachia Waltz, Bright Sheng’s Seven Tunes Heard in China, David Wilde’s The Cellist of Sarajevo. Those, along with works by Tchrepnin and Kodaly, form a collection that distills Ma's mission to its essence, utilizing a bow and four strings to take us on a journey around the world and into the depth of the human spirit.

- James David Jacobs

From Arcade Fire to Classical

Friday, September 19, 2014
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Canadian multi-instrumentalist Richard Reed Parry, known for his work as a member of the Grammy-award winning band Arcade Fire, takes a dive into the rhythms of the human body Music for Heart and Breath.



A quartet of musicians sit before sheets of music with instruments in hand, casually dressed and waiting for instruction. A rehearsal like any other, except the human body is the metronome; each musician is wearing a stethoscope strapped to his or her chest, following their own heartbeat or breath to keep time or, sometimes, that of another performer.

This scene personifies the concept behind Richard Reed Parry’s new album Music for Heart and Breath. Released on Deutsche Grammophon, with contributions from the iconic new music ensemble Kronos Quartet, pop and classical crossover ensemble yMusic, and avant-garde composer Nico Muhly, the compositions and various instrumental configurations explore the notion that the human body can dictate how music is performed and how we interact with it.

Parry is not a name associated with classical music. The Canadian multi-instrumentalist is a member of the Grammy Award-winning rock band Arcade Fire, in which his musical voice might emerge from guitar, double bass, or accordion. Music for Heart and Breath is a reflection of Parry’s desire to make music that reacts with the mind and the body through rhythmic, haunting compositions in an experiment that takes us beyond genre or tradition. 



For more information and to purchase this recording, visit ArkivMusic.

















Valentine Wishes

Thursday, January 30, 2014
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Celebrate Mozart!

Sunday, January 26, 2014
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Portrait of Mozart attributed to Barbara Krafft, via Wikimedia Commons

No composer retains as strong a hold on our imaginations as Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. Even after dispensing with the myths that form the popular narrative of his life, what remains is music of indisputable beauty and invention.

For Mozart's 258th birthday on Jan. 27, enjoy these performances from WCRB's Fraser Performance Studio, Symphony Hall in Boston, and beyond.

Soprano Kristen Watson sings “Tu virginum corona" from Exultate Jubilate with the Arcadia Players:

Christoph Eschenbach Monday at 8pm on 99.5 WCRB

Christoph Eschenbach performs Mozart's Piano Concerto No. 12 as both soloist and conductor with the Boston Symphony Orchestra, in concert at Symphony Hall:

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Arcadia Players Cellist Mozart Downloads from the WCRB Classical Performance Podcast

The Ma'alot Wind Quintet plays selections from Mozart's Cosí fan tutte:
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The Arcadia Players perform the chamber version of Mozart's Piano Concerto No. 12 and a selection from Exultate Jubilate, with soprano Kristen Watson:
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The Parker Quartet performs Mozart's String Quartet No. 23 in F, K. 590:

Mozart on Café Europa, weekdays at noon on 99.5 WCRB

Hear recent concert performances from the great halls of Europe:

Last week:
     Symphony No. 41, "Jupiter"
          Finnish Radio Symphony
     Violin Concerto No. 3
          Nicola Benedetti, violin
     Piano Concerto No. 22
          Jonathan Biss, piano

Coming up:
     Tue. - Symphony No. 21
          L'Orfeo Baroque Orchestra
     Wed. - Serenade, K. 375
          from the Ittingen Pentecost Festival
     Thu. - Piano Trio No. 3
          Wanderer Trio
     Fri. - Clarinet Concerto
          Martin Fröst, clarinet

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A Far Cry More from our Fraser Performance Studio

A Far Cry plays Mozart's Symphony No. 40:
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Symphony Hall More from the Boston Symphony Orchestra

Paul Lewis is the soloist in Mozart's Piano Concerto No. 25:
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Isabelle Faust is the soloist in Mozart's Violin Concerto No. 5:
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Christoph Eschenbach conducts Mozart's Symphony No. 41, the "Jupiter":
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Violinist Daniel Stepner and violist Anne Black perform the Finale of the Duo in G, K. 423, on instruments Mozart himself once owned and played:

13 Favorites from 2013

Friday, December 20, 2013
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Chris Thile
  Chris Thile (credit Brantley Gutierrez)

That the recording industry has gone through massively disruptive change in recent years is hardly news. But, as these selections of 13 favorite releases from 2013 demonstrate, the quality of available recordings is as high as ever.

After seeing WCRB's list, add your own favorites of the last year in the comments section below.

Nelsons Dvorak 9 CD cover

Purchase from ArkivMusic

Dvorák: Symphony No. 9, "From the New World"

Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra, Andris Nelsons, conductor

The next Music Director of the Boston Symphony Orchestra seems to push the limits of his interpretations just to the brink without distorting the composer's vision. Get a glimpse of Boston's musical future in this recording from one of the great orchestra of Europe.

listen buttonHear Andris Nelsons's first concert as Boston Symphony Orchestra Music Director Designate

Jonas Kaufmann Wagner CD cover

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Kaufmann Sings Wagner

Jonas Kaufmann, tenor; Orchestra of Deutsche Oper Berlin, Donald Runnicles, conductor

Kaufmann has been at the forefront of operatic stars of his generation for  a number of years. This celebration of the bicentennial of Richard Wagner's birth seals that status with a voice of extreme intimacy and cosmic power - precisely the combination necessary for music by the German composer.

Chris Thile Bach CD cover

Purchase from ArkivMusic

Bach: Sonatas and Partitas, Vol. 1

Chris Thile, mandolin

The recent MacArthur Award recipient tests himself and his instrument in some of the most daunting music for a solo performer. The fact that Bach originally wrote these works for solo violin will be quickly forgotten when you hear Thile's ruminative slow movements and pyrotechnic fugues.

listen buttonHear Chris Thile perform and talk about Bach on The Bach Hour

listen buttonHear the extended Bach Hour interview with Chris Thile

Leonidas Kavakos Brahms CD cover

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Brahms: Violin Concerto

Leonidas Kavakos, violin; Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra, Riccardo Chailly, conductor

The Greek violinist emphasizes the fascination Brahms had with Hungarian folk music in this performance of one of the pillars of the violin repertoire, pairing it with a selection of Hungarian Dances by the German composer and two short works by Hungarian composer Béla Bartók.

listen buttonHear Leonidas Kavakos as both soloist and conductor with the Boston Symphony Orchestra

Blue Heron CD cover

Purchase from ArkivMusic

Peterhouse Partbooks, Vol. 3: Ludford and Mason

Blue Heron, Scott Metcalfe, director

One of Boston's many local groups to have attained international stature, Blue Heron have gradually been  recording near-forgotten music from the English Renaissance. Metcalfe's emphasis on using the text of this choral music as his a guide to interpretation lends an immediacy that transcends the simple, glowing beauty music from this period often elicits.

download buttonDownload WCRB's Classical Performance Podcast with Blue Heron

Pacifica Quartet Shostakovich CD cover

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The Soviet Experience, Vol. 4: Shostakovich and Schnittke

Pacifica Quartet

The fall of the Iron Curtain has, in the minds of some, led to the relegation of much of Shostakovich's music to a category defined by its time. But the hyper-capable Pacifica Quartet shows that the composer's string quartets, along with many of those by his peers, speak to our own time and society in continually powerful ways.

listen buttonHear the Pacifica Quartet perform in WCRB's Fraser Performance Studio

Alexandre Tharaud CD cover

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Alexandre Tharaud, piano

With a calendar based primarily in Europe, this French pianist may not be well-known in the US ... yet. In this survey of 23 short works, he exposes a soulfulness in music that might otherwise be consigned to light-weight encore status.

Isabelle Faust CD cover

Purchase from ArkivMusic

Bartók: Violin Concertos

Isabelle Faust, violin; Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra, Daniel Harding, conductor

Faust has an ability to inhabit the particular cultural and personal context of each work she performs. In Bartók's Second Concerto, we hear the composer's fusion of folk music source material and advanced 20th-century concert language through a sound that's at times dark and rich, and at others a steel wire. But in the First, which Bartok wrote before fully incorporating those folk influences, and in a time of intense personal turmoil, Faust's sound is plush, reminiscent of an older, pre-Great War universe of unchecked passion.

listen buttonHear Isabelle Faust perform Mozart with the Boston Symphony Orchestra at Tanglewood

Tony McManus CD cover

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Mysterious Boundaries

Tony McManus, guitar

The title of this recording could have just as easily been "No Boundaries." McManus, born in Scotland and a resident of Canada, pivots from his well-deserved reputation for enlivening Celtic music into works by Bach, Monteverdi, Couperin, and Satie, making us wonder why anything has to be categorized as "classical" at all.

Cantus CD cover

Purchase from ArkivMusic

Song of a Czech: Dvorák and Janácek for Men's Voices


Antonín Dvorák and Leos Janácek are each popularly known for particular kinds of works. Dvorák for his hefty, rustic symphonies and folk-infused chamber works, and Janácek for blazing orchestral works and biting operas that point to a modernist world. A rarely heard and touching intimacy from these Czech composers of two different generations is delivered by the Minnesota-based men's choir in this recording.

Pittsburgh Strauss CD cover

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Strauss Tone Poems

Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra, Manfred Honeck, conductor

Strauss's tone poems no longer test the capabilities of orchestral players to the same degree they did when new. That in no way, however, diminishes the virtuosity of great orchestras who perform them. When combined with insightful interpretations that take the performances beyond the virtuosic, the results are thrilling. Honeck and Pittsburgh deliver on all counts.

Matthias Goerne Eisler CD cover

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Eisler: Lieder with Piano

Matthias Goerne, baritone; Ensemble Resonanz; Thomas Larcher, piano

Born of a time of unprecedented turmoil, Hanns Eisler's songs speak to the pain and despair of Europe's condition in the 1930's, all while maintaining a glimmer of hope. Goerne's rich baritone voice humanizes these rarely heard works.

listen buttonHear Matthias Goerne perform Benjamin Britten's War Requiem in concert with the Boston Symphony Orchestra

Ensemble Caprice CD cover

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Adagio: A Consideration of a Serious Matter

Ensemble Caprice, Matthias Maute, director

In a compilation of works spanning the Renaissance to modern times, the early music ensemble opens with a "Miserere" by Bohemian baroque composer Jan Dismas Zelenka and turns to Satie, Chopin, Pärt, and others before concluding with Charles Ives's "Unanswered Question." It all happens with such ease and fluency that you forget about the separation of time and space among the composers, transforming perception into an experience of pure music.

download buttonDownload WCRB's Classical Performance Podcast with Ensemble Caprice

Classical Holiday Music, 24/7

Thursday, December 12, 2013
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