Leonard Bernstein and Yo-Yo Ma: Beginnings and Endings

Jul 2, 2018

Leonard Bernstein was there at the beginning of Yo-Yo Ma's career. And in a special way, Yo-Yo Ma was there at the end of Bernstein's life.

In 1962, Bernstein emceed a benefit for what’s now the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts. The benefit featured a gala concert that included Danny Kaye conducting the National Symphony Orchestra and performances by pianist Van Cliburn, contralto Marian Anderson and singer Harry Belafonte.

At that concert, Bernstein introduced to President and First Lady Kennedy, to the Washington, D.C., audience, and to TV viewers across the U.S., two young musicians recently immigrated from France — 11-year-old pianist Yeou-Cheng Ma and her brother, 7-year-old cellist Yo-Yo Ma.

In December 1965, when Ma was 10 years old, he wrote Bernstein:

“Dear Mr. Bernstein, Do you still remember me? Now I am ten years old.” Ma explained that he learned three new concertos that year, under the tutelage of Leonard Rose. “If you have time,” Ma continued, “I would be glad to play for you.”

In 1989, after becoming an international cello sensation, Ma wrote Bernstein to express his excitement about a piano trio that Bernstein had agreed to compose for him, violinist Isaac Stern and pianist Emanuel Ax.

Ma goes on to say, “I would just like to add that those of us who have the privilege of coming in contact with you do feel truly blessed.”

Less than a year later, in October 1990, Bernstein died. But Ma was with Bernstein until the very end.

An Oct. 16, 1990, New York Times story reported that two hours before Bernstein died, composer Bright Sheng paid him a visit. “When I walked in,” Sheng told the New York Times, “he was watching a Yo-Yo Ma simulcast.”

Leading up to the 100th anniversary of Leonard Bernstein's birthday on Aug. 25, 2018, Classical 101 is celebrating A Bernstein Summer on air and online.