Yo-Yo Ma

Léonie Sonning Prize 2006

The American cellist received the 2006 Léonie Sonning Music Prize of 500,000 Danish kroner at a concert at Copenhagen Opera House on 10 December.

The prize was presented by the conductor Michael Schønwandt, a member of the Léonie Sonning Music Foundation’s board. His personal address included the following comments:

‘Your message is so powerful because your musicality is so refined and you master your instrument so phenomenally. You open our souls and talk to us, so we can talk to ourselves, and to you. One such unforgettable moment came in your performance of the Schumann Cello Concerto a few years ago here in Copenhagen. It was a unique experience for everyone present, thanks to your total empathy with the music and your ability to convey it to every single member of the audience and orchestra. In these years when the world seems to be establishing more physical and mental barriers for security reasons, your struggle to keep the world open and accessible to everyone is more important than ever.’


The 2006 Léonie Sonning Music Prize of 500,000 Danish kroner is awarded to the cellist Yo-Yo Ma for setting a new standard for cello playing with technical mastery and great musicality, for his tireless efforts to take classical music of the highest level to the world, and for his pioneering work to unite the music of different cultures in a common humanistic expression.’

Yo-Yo Ma’s acceptance speech included the following comments:

‘I am deeply, deeply honoured by this award. When I look at the list of people who have received it before me, I see the names of people who have been my role models, sources of inspiration, heroes and several, my mentors. So it’s incredible to be in their company, and in the company of all you today.’

‘It is particularly meaningful and exciting to receive the award from a music foundation so committed to education and young people. Yesterday I heard three wonderful young cellists at a master-class – another example of something that the Foundation arranges. When I started playing myself, I learned something very valuable: that music is something bigger than ourselves. I believe the Sonning Music Foundation will pursue its vision for the future, which I know the board members are fully committed to brining to fruition. And in that spirit – the spirit of our common future – I gratefully accept the music prize.’

You can listen to both speeches here:

The programme

Schubert Sonata in A minor, Arpeggione
Shostakovich Sonata in D minor, op. 40
Astor Piazolla Le grand tango
Geraldo Caneiro Bodas de Prata, Quatro Canto (arr. Egberto Gismonti)
César Franck Sonata in A major

Rachmaninov Vokalise
NN Tango
Saint-Saëns The Swan

On Saturday, 9 December from 2pm to 4pm, Yo-Yo Ma gave a master class for three young Danish cellists (Soo-Kyung Hong, Jakob Kullberg and Toke Møldrup) at The Royal Danish Academy of Music.

The daily press wrote, among other things:

The Chinese-American cellist Yo-Yo Ma received this year’s Sonning Music Prize at the Opera House. And he definitely deserves it, as the concert was brilliant. He proved that he belongs in the company of the many legendary names who have received the award since the late 1950s. The programme consisted of sonatas and duos with Kathryn Stott. That the two are deeply intertwined was clear. Concepts such as cello melody and piano accompaniment lost their meaning when phrased as responsively as in the slow movement of Schubert’s Arpeggione Sonata. Each note was weighed and balanced. That the piece is notorious among cellists for its difficulty – it is actually written for a completely different instrument, now obsolete – was barely noticed. In turn, wildness, dry humour and deep pain characterized Shostakovich’s Cello Sonata in A minor, a typically personal and whimsical Shostakovich work written for the Sonning laureate Rostropovich. It was one of the musical highlights of the concert, with the piano in an outgoing role for a terrific finale in which the hairs of Yo-Yo Ma’s bow were left to hang in tatters.

(Michael Garnæs, Kristeligt Dagblad, 12 December 2006)

Yo-Yo Ma does not come for the money, nor does he get away with anything. He gives of himself one hundred percent across more than two hours that range through three of the great cello sonatas and more. Incidentally, it is not only his name that has Y-chromosomes in abundance. His playing has too. Almost every movement begins attacca, as they say – without a break, without turning a page, sometimes even without breathing. If less experienced concertgoers are considering a round of applause along the way, they may well give up. Yo-Yo Ma is not only one of the world’s greatest cellists, he is also one of the world’s greatest musicians. And a friendly, sympathetic creature. “You open our souls so we can talk to ourselves,” said the prize giver Michael Schønwandt afterwards. At least you are in the best company in the world.

(Søren Schauser, Berlingske Tidende, 12 December 2006)

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