Classical 99.5 | Classical Radio Boston
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Mr. Ma Goes to Pinkville

Screenshot of a scene from the GBH Kids program "Pinkalicious and Peterrific." A cartoon Yo-Yo Ma stands to the left of a white gazebo in a park, holding a cello and wearing a tuxedo. Inside the gazebo, a little girl with pigtails and a pink dress smiles back at him.
© 2023 WGBH. Underlying © Victoria Kann, or Victoria Kann and Elizabeth Kann. TM/ Victoria Kann.

Cellist Yo-Yo Ma and children's television are old friends. In the 1980s, he made several appearances on Sesame Street, on one notable occasion playing the masterpiece “Beethoven for cello, two honkers, and a dinger.” In 1999, on Arthur, Ma faced off against saxophonist Joshua Redman in the wrestling ring (Redman’s makeshift bicycle pump-turned-saxophone earning him the victory). And on October 6, 2023, Ma will join the residents of Pinkville to teach a valuable lesson about the power of music on the GBH Kids-produced, PBS KIDS series "Pinkalicious & Peterrific."

Pinkalicious - Yo-Yo Ma - Fraser.mp4

© 2023 WGBH. Underlying © Victoria Kann, or Victoria Kann and Elizabeth Kann. TM/ Victoria Kann.

In the episode, Pinkalicious, her brother Peter, and their friends are preparing for a recital in which they will play a Concerto for Five Kazoos. An argument at rehearsal leads the kazoo ensemble to disband, and only the power of music, a little magic, and the world’s best-known cellist can bring them back together again.

While the Concerto for Five Kazoos unfortunately only exists in the world of Pinkalicious & Peterrific, Ma demonstrates the ways that music can impact our emotions by playing two of the most recognizable classical cello pieces from our world: the Prelude from J.S. Bach’s Cello Suite No. 1, and “The Swan” from Camille Saint-Saëns’s The Carnival of the Animals.

Chances are good that you’ve heard both of these works before. They’re quintessential cello pieces that might as well appear in the dictionary next to the entries for “soothing” and “elegant,” which makes them perfect choices for movies and TV. They’re also both pieces that Ma has performed and recorded countless times, all over the world — including Pinkville. So, sure, you’ve probably heard them. But what are these pieces, anyway?

Camille Saint-Saëns, “The Swan”

The Carnival of the Animals, one of Saint-Saëns’s best-known pieces, started out as something of a joke. In 1886, he had just returned from a concert tour of Germany, and was staying in a small Austrian town to rest. Thinking of his piano and organ students back home in Paris, he began working on a series of charming little movements, each representing an animal or a group of animals (including, hilariously, Pianists). Writing to his publisher, he said that he knew he should be working on his Symphony No. 3, but that he was having far more fun writing Carnival. Its first performance was a month later at a private concert in Paris, and it made its way around various salons before it was put away, with Saint-Saëns’s instructions to wait until his death to publish it. Carnival was an immediate hit after that. About its first public performance in 1922, Le Figaro reported:

“We cannot describe the cries of admiring joy let loose by an enthusiastic public . . . From the first note to the last it is an uninterrupted outpouring of a spirit of the highest and noblest comedy. In every bar, at every point, there are unexpected and irresistible finds. Themes, whimsical ideas, instrumentation compete with buffoonery, grace and science . . . When he likes to joke, the master never forgets that he is the master.”

Towards the end of The Carnival of the Animals glides “The Swan,” a serene little piece that ripples and soars. Its sincerity and lyrical beauty sets it apart from the other, more comedic movements of the suite — and Saint-Saëns must have thought so, too, because “The Swan” was the only movement of Carnival he published while he was still alive.

It’s that same sincerity and tranquility that makes it a favorite even today. In a conversation with pianist and longtime collaborator Katherine Stott, Yo-Yo Ma said they must have performed “The Swan” together more than any other piece:

“If there’s something that can be so beautiful that it can make you tear up . . . it’s not like you have to have earned this moment of tranquility. It’s just tranquil, because the swan is gliding in the water, and you see this magnificent creature, and you’re just smitten by its beauty and its form. And that’s the way that I think this piece comes across.”

It certainly comes across that way in Pinkville. Watch a clip from the Pinkalicious & Peterrific episode:

Pinkalicious - Yo-Yo Ma - The Swan.mp4

© 2023 WGBH. Underlying © Victoria Kann, or Victoria Kann and Elizabeth Kann. TM/ Victoria Kann.

J.S. Bach, Cello Suite No. 1 in G Major, I. Prelude

If I had to guess, I would say that Ma has played this piece more than any other over the course of his career. He’s recorded Bach’s Cello Suites three times, most recently in 2018, and he began learning them at the ripe old age of 4. In his notes for his 2018 recording, called “Six Evolutions,” he wrote,

“Bach’s cello suites have been my constant musical companions. For almost six decades, they have given me sustenance, comfort, and joy during times of stress, celebration, and loss. What power does this music possess that even today, after three hundred years, it continues to help us navigate through troubled times? . . . I share this music, which has helped shape the evolution of my life, with the hope that it might spark a conversation about how culture can be a source of the solutions we need. It is one more experiment, this time a search for answers to the question: What we can do together, that we cannot do alone?”

Also in 2018, Ma was a guest on a special episode of the podcast “Song Exploder.” He walked host Hrishikesh Hirway through the Prelude to Cello Suite No. 1 (transcript available here):

About playing this piece, Ma said,

“There's no question that with life experience as you experience loss and love and tragedy, you are slightly changed. And as a musician, you make your living from being sensitized to these changes and digest them and make sure that you are always giving your full self to whatever you're doing, which means that any experience that you’ve had has to be somehow revealed in the process of making music. And I think that almost forces you to make yourself vulnerable to whatever is there to be vulnerable to, because that actually is your strength.”

It’s a sentiment that, in not quite so many words, Ma also shares on Pinkalicious & Peterrific:

Pinkalicious - Yo-Yo Ma - Music's Powermp4

© 2023 WGBH. Underlying © Victoria Kann, or Victoria Kann and Elizabeth Kann. TM/ Victoria Kann.

Pinkalicious: Yo-Yo’s Musical Journey will premiere on Friday, October 6, on the PBS KIDS 24/7 channel and streaming on PBS KIDS digital platforms.

Yo-Yo Ma also joins the Boston Symphony Orchestra next weekend to play Shostakovich’s Cello Concertos Nos. 1 and 2 — learn more about our broadcast on October 14 here.

Kendall Todd is the Content Manager for GBH Music.