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Selling Yo-Yo Ma to the masses

These days, even phenomenal talent and an engaging personality aren't enough to be successful in classical music. The key ingredient? Crossover appeal.

Published October 31, 2004

Yo-Yo Ma is the biggest name in classical music. So why does he make so few classical recordings these days?

It's not that Ma doesn't put out CDs. Quite the contrary. He's a prodigious recording artist, with many releases on the Sony Classical label. In 2004, he has four recordings out, three new ones and a compilation of older material. He's also featured in at least three reissues from the Sony vaults.

That's a total of seven Ma releases this year, with the Christmas selling season still to come. No other performer in classical music and opera comes close.

Ma's robust presence on disc is the exception that proves the rule. The classical recording industry is no longer capable of sustaining itself except through the kind of celebrity marketing that doesn't even work very well for pop music anymore.

Along with Ma, about the only other bankable American classical and opera performers on disc are Maria Callas and Leonard Bernstein, and they're both dead. Even the term "classical" - essentially a recording industry category of convenience that includes a vast range of symphonic and chamber music - seems irrelevant.

Of Ma's classical discs this year, only one is actually new, Vivaldi's Cello, with his frequent collaborators, Ton Koopman and the Amsterdam Baroque Orchestra. Despite the ubiquity of his Four Seasons, Vivaldi repertoire still is terra incognita for many because he wrote so much, and this disc has three of his cello concertos. It also makes good use of transcriptions for a baroque-fitted instrument. The music can, however, begin to sound all the same even in Ma's skillful hands.

The Dvorak Album is a repackaging of the cellist's 1995 performance of Dvorak's concerto, with Kurt Masur conducting the New York Philharmonic, and other works by the Czech composer.

Two other new albums are in the crossover vein that Sony has mined with a vengeance. Obrigado Brazil Live in Concert revisits Ma's Grammy-winning foray into bossa nova, merengues and sambas. Yo-Yo Ma Plays Ennio Morricone is movie music, with the cellist featured in orchestral arrangements of the prolific Italian composer's scores for The Mission, The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, Casualties of War and others.

Ma's high commercial profile is richly deserved. Not only is he the leading cellist of his generation, but he also is one of music's all-time good guys, with an easygoing stage personality and a genuine sense of humility about his talent.

In some ways, Ma is simply running out of repertoire. He has recorded most of the cello masterpieces and apparently is reluctant to return to them. It's hard to imagine Sony encouraging him to play the standard works again when there are countless recordings already out there, not only by him but also by Janos Starker, Mstislav Rostropovich, Jacqueline du Pre, Pablo Casals and other great cellists.

Ma did rerecord the Bach unaccompanied cello suites a few years ago, having first committed them to disc in 1983, but the second time around came with a twist. The six suites served as inspiration for a series of films that aired on PBS, of everything from figure skating to a garden. This was a gimmick, to be sure, but he deserves credit for using his clout to try fresh approaches to musical presentation.

Ma has done his part for new music, recording the premieres of concertos by Richard Danielpour, Leon Kirchner and Christopher Rouse, with conductor David Zinman and the Philadelphia Orchestra. He recorded the cello concerto John Williams wrote for him with the Boston Symphony Orchestra.

None of these works attracted widespread attention. Nor has any other recent classical recording, for that matter. The last really big hit was Gorecki's Third Symphony, the haunting lament that featured soprano Dawn Upshaw in the early '90s.

So, crossover material increasingly dominates Ma's catalog. He has put out CDs of Appalachian folk music and Argentinian tangos; he was soloist on the soundtrack of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. The Morricone album seems dubious, not because his movie scores aren't perfectly lovely, but because there is so little of interest for Ma to do in them. The Brazilian disc also flirts with pointlessness.

Ma's most devoted efforts lately have been with the Silk Road Ensemble, an eclectic group he formed to play music from countries and cultures along the ancient trade route that stretched from the Mediterranean across Central Asia to the Pacific. This means not just Armenian folk songs and gypsy fiddle tunes, but also works by modern day composers from Iran, China and Azerbaijan. The album he did with the ensemble doesn't capture its infectious quality in concert.

At least Ma has a current catalog. Many classical musicians have lost their contracts as the recording industry has fallen on hard times. Widely known artists such as clarinetist Richard Stoltzman, recorded by RCA for years, now make CDs for specialty labels, if at all.

And then there are the endless reissues of vintage material. Probably the single best representation of Ma on disc is part of Sony's Masterworks Expanded Edition series. It's the CD that features not only his legendary performance of Dvorak's great cello concerto (the same one that's on The Dvorak Album), but also the work that inspired it, Victor Herbert's Cello Concerto No. 2, and two short Dvorak works. Plus it's budget-priced.

Old music at a discount. Somehow, that sums up the problem with the classical recording business.

- John Fleming can be reached at 727 893-8716 or

[Last modified October 28, 2004, 14:56:12]

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