When exactly did Yo-Yo Ma become the go-to reference for expressing that someone is really good at something? I don’t know. After combing through pages of Google search results, I lost patience trying to find the earliest Internet Yo-Yo Ma metaphor.
I did find, though, a world of people whose excellence at their instrument has earned them Yo-Yo Ma metaphorical status.
The Yo-Yo Ma of the piano? According to The Memphis News, it’s Markus Groh. The clarinet: Richard Stoltzman. The bass, the viola, and the organ: Edgar Meyer, Paolo Pandolfo, and John Rose. Iain Macey is the Yo-Yo Ma of bagpiping. Susan Fancher clinches the saxophone title. If you think you’re going to snag Yo-Ya Ma status with a more obscure instrument, like the mandolin, think again. Chris Thile has beat you to it. The Yo-Yo Ma of the triangle, tambourine, and harmonica — all claimed.
There is, however, no Yo-Yo Ma of the harp, and for good reason. At 85 pounds, a concert harp makes a terrible travel companion. “You can buy a seat on a plane for a cello,” one harpist told the Philadelphia Inquirer in 2004. “You can’t do that with a harp.” Big cumbersome instrument means no jetting around the world to concerts, à la Yo-Yo Ma.
Not only has the cellist, by accounts a pleasant, soft-spoken family man, become synonymous with the highest compliment in classical music, he has become the exclusive compliment. Which classical contemporary musician could be substituted and still convey the same sense of fame and talent to the general public? Nobody, because Yo-Yo Ma is the only classical contemporary musician most of us can name. “The Yo-Yo Ma of” title has expanded from the musical world into the worlds of golf, motion-capture animation, tap dancing, yodeling, and comic-book artistry.
Jayme Stone, the Yo-Yo Ma of the banjo, lent some thoughts on the matter during a telephone interview. He earned his moniker from a reporter writing up his performance, and it stuck.
“I’m certainly inspired by Yo-Yo Ma’s work,” says Stone, citing Ma’s success in taking the cello, an instrument typically associated with chamber music, and exploring other music forms.
“He’s extremely well known,” adds Stone. “He’s just a consummate musician and a household name. Those two things don’t always go together. He’s one of those shining examples of someone who makes great art.”
A name like Joshua Bell, for instance, possibly the only other classical musician to approach Ma’s level of name recognition with a general audience, doesn’t make the same impact that Ma’s name does. One, he’s not as famous. (The subway incident? Like that would have happened to Yo-Yo Ma.) Two, “Joshua Bell” doesn’t have the rhetorical novelty of “Yo-Yo Ma” and is therefore less fun to say. Three, Bell’s reputation is more about being an extraordinary musician instead of a groundbreaking collaborator in the manner of Ma.
“I think the depth and scope of [Ma’s] collaborations is something very different from Joshua Bell,” says Stone. He points to Ma’s Silk Road Project, which brought together musicians from all over the world, and his less expected collaborations, like his work with landscape designer Julie Moir Messervy on the Toronto Music Garden. People “expect Yo-Yo Ma to surprise them,” says Stone.
That element of surprise and unique collaboration is something Stone has tried to cultivate in his 17-year banjo career. He moves from bluegrass to classical, and he’s playing with an unlikely line-up at his upcoming show at the Strathmore on Friday: a saxophone, a cello, a bass, and drums. Stone promises songs from Norway, Sweden, Bulgaria, Brazil, West Africa, and his own compositions, a selection reeking of Yo-Yo Ma eclecticism. If only Kip Rosser, the Yo-Yo Ma of the theremin, could have joined.