I kind of grew up with the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra," says Yo-Yo Ma, the exceedingly gifted and adventurous cellist who will be the featured artist in the BSO's season-launching gala Saturday. "So I'm very excited about doing the opening concert."
Ma, chatting by phone from his summer home in the Berkshires, recalls first performing with the orchestra in its pre-Meyerhoff Symphony Hall days at the Lyric Opera House with then-music director Sergiu Comissiona. "He was an incredibly kind man, very paternal to me," the cellist says.
His association with the BSO continued, not just at the Meyerhoff, but on tour, and with each subsequent music director - David Zinman ("He got me to play tons of new music"), Yuri Temirkanov (including for the orchestra's inaugural concert at its second home, the Music Center at Strathmore, in 2005) and Marin Alsop.
"It has been very interesting to follow 30 years of the orchestra's evolution," says the Paris-born Ma, 52, who came to the United States with his Chinese parents when he was 4.
"I always felt that this orchestra sets a very high bar for itself and always tries to exceed expectations, and that has stayed the same from music director to music director," he says.
Alsop, about to start her second BSO season, met the cellist when the two were students in the pre-college division of New York's Juilliard School. Their paths have intersected several times since, including on a somber occasion seven years ago, when Alsop was music director of the Colorado Symphony.
"He was scheduled to play with us on Sept. 12, 2001," the conductor says. "We changed the program around because of what had happened the day before. We opened with the Adagietto [from Gustav Mahler's Symphony No. 5], and Yo-Yo sat in the back of the orchestra's cello section to play it with us. That was a cathartic collaboration."
For this weekend's BSO gala, the cellist will be featured in Tchaikovsky's elegant Rococo Variations and the Three Meditations for cello and orchestra that Leonard Bernstein fashioned from his multigenre Mass. The latter will help Alsop provide the audience with a preview of the BSO's presentation of the complete Mass next month.
Performances of that work, which calls for vocal soloists, choirs and more, are rare. Ma hasn't ever seen the full piece, but the Meditations are in his extensive repertoire. "With each time, I'm appreciating it more," he says.
The second Meditation contains references to Beethoven's Ninth Symphony. "Philosophically, the underlying theme of Mass is the same as the brotherhood of mankind expressed by the Ode to Joy in the Ninth," Alsop says.
That connection led to another item for Saturday's concert, what the conductor describes as "probably another insane idea of mine."
She asked BSO trumpeter Phil Snedecor to write something that would involve the full roster of performers at the gala, which includes local choirs, marching bands and more. The result is Variations on 'Ode to Joy.' And, of course, there's a part for the evening's stellar cellist.
"Yo-Yo is such a good sport," Alsop says. "He got a little jazzy section to play in the piece."
Stretching outside the classical realm is hardly new to Ma. In addition to crossing over for the occasional pop, bluegrass and jazz adventure, he added a bold new dimension to his art 10 years ago with the founding of the Silk Road Project.
Inspired by the trade routes that once connected Asia and the Mediterranean, the Silk Road venture involves an ensemble of musicians from multiple cultures exploring an extraordinary amount of traditional and freshly written music.
Ma is squeezing the BSO gala into a schedule filled with Silk Road activity - a workshop being held at the Tanglewood Music Center in Massachusetts.
"We do this every couple of years to try out new works," the cellist says. "It's kind of summer camp-ish, but allows for good creative work, an environment safe for risk-taking. It's a place where you can say to a colleague, 'You know, not to rain on your parade, but you've got to change this.' "
The Silk Road experience of the past decade has left quite a mark on the cellist.
"In terms of knowledge and experience, I've had an absolute transformation," Ma says. "Now my imagination is broader. I can place most musics in a linear continuum. You can drop me in anywhere and I won't be scared. I can get it quickly. It's like [conductor/pianist Daniel] Barenboim says: 'There is only one way to start - inside.' "
Whether playing Bach or a folk song from the Middle East, Ma's ability to burrow inside the music, and coax exquisite tones from his cello, invariably makes a lasting impression. That compelling style has kept him in demand since his career began in 1976.
"As you get older, and you have all the layers of experience, it takes you to another frame of thinking," Ma says. "Was this worth it? What did it cost my family? I figured out that I was away from home 20 out of the last 30 years. My wife and I just celebrated our 30th anniversary, but it's actually our 10th."
The cellist laughs. It's clear, though, that he strongly values his family - he and his wife, Jill, have two children - and friends. A CD being released next month by Sony BMG Masterworks captures those feelings. It's called Songs of Joy and Peace and it celebrates the Christmas holidays in a personal way.
"I have not wanted to do a seasonal album for a long, long time," Ma say. "But then I thought, 'OK, maybe if it was something very celebratory, like a musical party.' "
The cellist invited musicians, some he already knew, some he wanted to know better, to join in the fun and bring along a favorite song.
"It was my dream to make some music with Dave Brubeck once in my life," Ma says. That dream was realized (Brubeck and his son, cellist Matt Brubeck, both appear on the disc), but that's only for starters.
The lineup of talent includes soprano Renee Fleming, jazz vocalist Diana Krall, singer/songwriter James Taylor and bassist Edgar Meyer. Some participants invited other musicians and that led to new friendships for Ma as he put together an eclectic collection of carols, holiday ballads and more.
"It's exactly what a party feels like," he says of the disc. "That's pretty neat."
The upbeat nature of the new CD (a DVD of the recording sessions will also be released) provides a glimpse into Ma's personality.
"It is so easy to become pessimistic and cynical. You have to fight hard to stay optimistic," he says. "But I'm optimistic. As parents, you have to be optimistic, or why have kids?"
Ma also will be in the Baltimore area soon for a private event organized by eminent pianist Leon Fleisher. With stellar violinist Itzhak Perlman, the three will perform music by Brahms at a fundraiser for the presidential campaign of Sen. Barack Obama.
"I have never taken a stand before because I think politics and culture are separate compartments," Ma says, "but I think this is a good thing to do at this moment."
IF YOU GO
The BSO gala concert is at 8:30 p.m. Saturday at Meyerhoff Symphony Hall, 1212 Cathedral St. Remaining tickets are $100. Call 410-783-8000 or go to bsomusic.org.