Leonard Bernstein Introduces 7-Year-Old Yo-Yo Ma: Watch the Youngster Perform for John F. Kennedy (1962)

Asked to think of a virtuoso cellist, many of us immediately imagine Yo-Yo Ma, not just because of his considerable skill but also because of the sheer length of his residency in popular culture. Though only 61 years old, barely middle-aged by classical musician standards, he’s been famous for well over half a century, starting with his entry into the prestigious child-prodigies-who-perform-for-American-presidents circuit. Seven years after his birth in Paris, Ma’s family relocated to New York, by which time he’d already been at the cello for nearly half his short life. From there, it took him no time at all to command an audience whose members included Dwight D. Eisenhower and John F. Kennedy.

The event, a benefit concert called “The American Pageant of the Arts,” happened on November 29, 1962. Its other guests, a who’s-who of the Cold War cultural scene, included Marian Anderson, Van Cliburn, Robert Frost, Fredric March, Benny Goodman, and Bob Newhart. As master of ceremonies, Leonard Bernstein introduced the evening’s wee entertainers.

“Yo-Yo came to our attention through the great master Pablo Casals, who had recently heard him play the cello. Yo-Yo is, as you may have guessed, Chinese, and has lived up to now in France — a highly international type.” The same could be said of his sister Yeou-Cheng, who accompanies him on the piano in a performance of Jean-Baptiste Bréval’s Concertino No. 3 in A Major.

Three years later, the still extremely young but much more famous Ma would write a letter to the conductor:

Dear Mr. Bernstein,

Do you still remember me? Now I am ten years old. This year I learned with Prof. Leonard Rose three concertos: Saint-Saëns’, Boccherini’s and Lalo’s. Last week my sister and I played in a Christmas Concert in Juilliard School. We are invited to give a joint recital in Brearley School on January 19 1966 at 1:45 p.m.

If you have time, I would be glad to play for you.

Yo-Y0 Ma

Not only did Bernstein remember him, he also, by presenting him as a vision of humanity’s artistic future, ensured that everyone else at The American Pageant of the Arts would as well. “Now here’s a cultural image for you to ponder as you listen,” he said just before letting Yo-Yo and Yeou-Cheng take it away. “A seven-year-old Chinese cellist playing old French music for his new American compatriots.” Did Ma recall those words of decades and decades ago when he formed the Silk Road Ensemble, subject of the recent documentary The Music of Strangers, which brought into the fold musicians from Syria, Mongolia, Japan, Armenia, Galicia, and elsewhere, all to share, mix, and reinterpret the music of one another’s homelands? Now there‘s a cultural image for you.

via Peter B. Kaufman

Related Content:

Yo-Yo Ma & the Goat Rodeo Sessions

Collaborations: Spike Jonze, Yo-Yo Ma, and Lil Buck

Leonard Bernstein’s Masterful Lectures on Music (11+ Hours of Video Recorded at Harvard in 1973)

Leonard Bernstein Demystifies the Rock Revolution for Curious (if Square) Grown-Ups in 1967

Leonard Bernstein’s First “Young People’s Concert” at Carnegie Hall Asks, “What Does Music Mean?”

Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities and culture. He’s at work on a book about Los Angeles, A Los Angeles Primer, the video series The City in Cinema, the crowdfunded journalism project Where Is the City of the Future?, and the Los Angeles Review of Books’ Korea Blog. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

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Comments (14)
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  • Laura McCloskey says:

    the video link for Yo-Yo-ma at age 7 by Leonard Bernstein does not work. It has been removed. Is it still available?

  • Susie V Kaufman says:

    Laura, please give it about 45 seconds to one minute. It’s worth your patience, truly.

    For everyone else, how incredibly emotional!

  • Lou says:

    Great Story. So delightful. A wonderful look back at musical history in the making. Nice column of writing.

  • Sam says:

    That is one very long question you are posing at the end, there.

  • Loi Eberle says:

    Ahh, my first cello teacher was a student of Casals, and Yo Yo has always been my inspiration! I met him when her performed with the Silk Road in Seattle, shortly after 911. What courage, skill, talent and heart!!

  • So touching. Bernstein’s words of universality, of the beauty of lack of borders for all humanity are so important today. This film should be shared with the White House. Perhaps Leonard Bernstein’s humanity would rub off on them.

  • Zhanna Volynskaya says:

    I cannot express in full extend my gratitude to you for presenting this amazing recording. Watching it brings so many feelings and thoughts to my heart and mind about the meaning of support of a child’s talent when it was noticed. Thank you so very much for having it available for us.

  • Gail Rosson says:

    This is fantastic. It makes me wonder what has happened to Yo Yo Ma’s sister. Does anyone know? She seems gifted and also to be enjoying herself, while Yo Yo Ma shows no real emotion on his face at all.

  • Richard says:

    Love the dame on the right taking a hearty drag on her Chesterville King.

  • Ken Schamberg says:

    Thank you, Jay, for sharing that most inspirational clip! How often does one get to see and hear the brilliant Ma siblings and the multitalented Leonard Bernstein, sounding quasi-British and quoting Stephen Sondheim; while also seeing Ike, Jack, Jackie, and Pablo Casals? A big question is raised here: What ever became of Yu-Tsing Ma?

  • Harriet Cheney says:

    This clearly demonstrates what is great about America. It also demonstrates how much we could lose if we don’t come to our senses as a people. We will only remain a great country if we stay open, tolerant, and accepting.

    Thank you for sharing this.

  • Y. Raghunathan says:

    It is about time that we humans realized that it is not our origin in a particular geography or genealogy, but our individual life and exposure to arts and sciences that makes us proficient in those specific areas. Yo Yo Ma is a great example from the 1960’s when America really looked speechless! Today’s diversity in accomplishments in every walk of life was unthinkable then!

  • Ja Osobno says:

    He’s only 65, and this is how he sounds today:


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