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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