“I can be really nasty,” Yo-Yo Ma confesses, with a laugh. This is not what one would expect. He’s one of the world’s most renowned cellists — a child prodigy who, at 60, has long been enshrined as a legend. He has 18 Grammys to his name. But like most serious musicians, he’s far from severe.
Ma even starts our chat with a funny story. He was once doing a show in the Berkshires when he decided to prank the conductor. He told him John Kerry was going to staying at the house they were staying at, and asked if he wouldn’t mind staying somewhere else. Kerry, of course, was not in town.
One year later, the conductor responded in kind. They were again doing a concert, and he asked Ma if he would play a piece he had written. Ma found it to be extremely difficult, so difficult he wasn’t surprised when the conductor revealed it was a gag — his prank for his prank. He had even gone so far to print up a fake program, on top of devising a fake piece.
“Isn’t that awesome?” Ma exclaims with glee.
His warm and amused demeanor doesn’t change even when we talk about something serious. Ma is here, with “20 Feet from Stardom” filmmaker Morgan Neville, to talk about “The Music of Strangers,” a new documentary about the Silk Road Ensemble, the outfit he helped form in 1998, comprised of musicians from all over the world.
For both Ma and Neville, the Silk Road Ensemble and the film about them were born out of a need to not just grow as artists, but use their art to change the world.
“How can I use film to make things better? How useful is my work? These are all issues I think about as a filmmaker,” Neville says. “He and I were asking similar questions of ourselves.”