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Maestro for the masses The modest cellist Yo-Yo Man looks foward to a return engagement with the BPO this weekend

Next time you're passed over for a prize, lose a race, or get the short end of the stick, consider this:

Yo-Yo Ma never won a competition.

That's right. The world's most famous cellist, the winner of 15 Grammy Awards, a superstar on the concert stage, somehow didn't have what it took to impress a stone-faced jury.

Not since he was 5, anyway. At 5, he aced a little music contest in Paris, where he grew up. Ma, who turns 50 this fall, doesn't remember much any more about that triumph.

"Not much," he says, "except it was probably fun, and I probably didn't get nerves. Back then you did things unselfconsciously.

"Then as you go through school -- my goodness, you get tested," he reflects. "I think part of being a musician is you have to learn a lot of things. You're dying to learn things. But you have to unlearn things, too. You have to make sure you unlearn all the things that imply negative judgment." Otherwise, he explains, "you're a mess of nerves."

Ma, who will be in town this weekend to perform at Saturday's Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra's season-opening gala with Music Director JoAnn Falletta conducting, must have unlearned his lessons well. For millions of listeners, he has come to stand not only for the sublime performance of music, but for the enjoyment of it as well.

He's always in the international spotlight, recording duets with jazz singer Bobby McFerrin, playing Brahms with Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, and serenading the Grammy Awards. With his Silk Road Project, a recording and touring endeavor that links Western and Eastern musical styles, he brings cultures closer together.

Perhaps most importantly, Ma's generosity of spirit captures hearts wherever he goes. Once, in the Buffalo airport, he unpacked his cello and played a piece for a bunch of kids who had turned up to see him off.

Sometimes, after soloing in a concerto, he'll slip into the orchestra and play.

Roman Mekinulov, the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra's principal cellist, admires how Ma has made the world wake up to the beauty of the cello.

"He basically has done everything you can do on cello, as far as the classic repertoire goes," Mekinulov says. "Then he switched to the violin repertoire, and then he went to bluegrass, Brazilian music, jazz, Bobby McFerrin. He basically has done everything on cello you can do."

The unusual choice of music, Mekinulov adds, has made Ma a dynamic advocate for the cello.

"He does a lot of crossover stuff, which helps the masses learn what cello is all about," he says. "From a cellist's point of view, it's very rewarding to have Yo-Yo Ma."

Play 'that thing'

Because Ma's schedule is so packed, a phone interview with him is limited to 10 minutes. When the time is up, a publicist cuts in. (Rumor has it that the interruption is necessary because otherwise Ma would talk obligingly for hours, falling hopelessly behind.)

On the phone, Ma doesn't sound like a world-famous cello virtuoso. He sounds a little tired -- and stuffed up, as if he has a cold. Otherwise, he's eagerly communicative, listening alertly, laughing a lot.

At Kleinhans Music Hall on Saturday, Ma is going to be playing the romantic Cello Concerto by the great English composer Edward Elgar. When he says he's looking forward to it, he sounds as if he means it.

"What I try to do when I go to that beautiful hall, Kleinhans, to play that great music with that great orchestra, I want to get really into the moment," he says. "I'd like to share how exciting that thing is."

It's cute how Ma calls Elgar's concerto "that thing." Equally charming is how he sums up what goes through his mind as he's playing it.

"I think, 'Let me tell you a story. This is how it is,'" he confides. "I pretend that the audience is all in my living room, that we're all friends."

To Yo-Yo Ma, performance is a kind of thrill in itself. He thrives on the intimacy and joy of the occasion, the connection between artist and audience.

"I think the whole point is you get to the point of being in the moment, the pocket, the groove," he says. "The sounds represent a certain world -- a universe that never existed before. It's a part of really caring about something. You get excited about sharing something that's pretty neat."

A Juilliard graduate with a marvelous technique, Ma isn't the kind of concert artist who displays virtuosity for its own sake. He likes making what he does seem easy.

"Doing live music is a physical act," he says. "You want to make sure the physical parts don't interrupt the flow of what's being communicated."

Then he bursts out laughing and makes an exception.

"Unless you want to say, 'This content is extremely difficult,' and then you show that," he says. "As a listener, then, you sense that you're sharing something. The artist is saying: 'Here, I am stuck. I want you to know how difficult it is.'"

When strangers meet

Ma hasn't been stuck very often.

OK, there was the much-reported time around 10 years ago when he left his Stradivarius cello in a New York City taxicab. It was a nice reminder that superstars are people, too.

And moving back in time still further, he chafed at competitions, those traditional rites of passage in the music world.

"I get nervous when I think people are going to judge me," Ma says.

Ma's dislike of competitions is such that he won't even judge them. He was on one jury, he admits, but he never wants to be part of one again. Perhaps they're a necessary evil, but competitions go against Ma's individualistic philosophy.

Married with two daughters, he believes in bringing children up with a non-threatening view of music. "I think part of what I try to say to every child who plays an instrument is that the sound they make isn't the sound of the violin or the trumpet, it's the sound they want to hear," he says.

"What they're playing is what they want to hear inside, what their ear wants to hear, and it's different from everyone else. You have to find your own voice."

Ma can, clearly, sense things about people by the way that they play. His short recital with Condoleezza Rice at Washington's Constitution Hall left him with new impressions of her.

They played a Brahms sonata. "She chose the piece," he says.

"She's very cool under pressure," he reports. "I was in San Francisco, so I took the red-eye to Washington. We rehearsed for half an hour. She canceled her appointments that afternoon. She was unflappable. She was just unflappable. Just very, very cool. Great nerves."

Ma senses things through music, and playing Brahms with Rice gave him a new impression of her. "Whether you agree with her policies or not, she truly believes what she's doing," he says.

Music's power to bring people together is the philosophy behind Ma's Silk Road Project, an ongoing series of concerts and recordings featuring musicians from the Western and Eastern classical traditions.

"What happens when strangers meet?" is the project's catch-phrase. Ma takes the question seriously.

"There are many ways of creating music, many ways of expressing it," he says. "We've all learned a tremendous amount. We all like to share that, and that you can present a large part of the world on one stage. How do we meet as strangers, develop trust and the ability to say, 'We can make this work'?"

Ma's Silk Road Project involves musicians from all over Asia. One of them, Xu Ke -- who will be joining the Philharmonic for a concert later this fall -- is the world's foremost virtuoso on the erhu, a kind of Chinese lute. Falletta was startled to find him living in Buffalo.

Told that Buffalo has his erhu player, Ma initially laughs in astonishment, but then seems to make sense of the situation.

"He must have moved from New Jersey," he says.

When he, too, comes to Buffalo, Ma sees himself as a man on a mission. Humbly, he suggests that he'll try his best to make his concert memorable.

"People are busy. They take a couple hours out of their lives to go to a concert, cram themselves into a hall," he says. "Maybe they had a bad day. Maybe they're hungry. Maybe they're thinking of all the bad things that happened.

"You want to make it special."

e-mail: mkunz@buffnews.com

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