Yo-Yo Ma receives $1m Birgit Nilsson Prize
Tuesday, May 17, 2022
The cellist talks to Gramophone about what the prize – and Birgit Nilsson herself – means to him
The Birgit Nilsson Prize has been awarded to the cellist Yo-Yo Ma. Given every three years to an artist or institution whose contribution to classical music has significantly shaped the art form and its place in society - and even society itself - the Prize, worth $1m, is also classical music's largest.
The President of the Birgit Nilsson Foundation, Susanne Rydén, announcing the prize today from the Birgit Nilsson Museum in Sweden said: 'In today’s challenging and ever-evolving world, when classical music is too easily marginalized, Yo-Yo Ma embodies everything that Birgit Nilsson wished for in a fellow-artist when she created this Prize. Through exceptional musicianship, passion and dedication, Yo-Yo Ma’s commitment to music helps us to imagine and build a stronger society and better future. His support and engagement continuously inspires new generations of musicians as they embark on their own musical lives. Yo-Yo Ma has contributed an important chapter to music history and we are delighted to welcome him to Sweden this Autumn to receive the Birgit Nilsson Prize.' Yo-Yo Ma will receive the prize from His Majesty King Carl XVI Gustaf on October 18 at the Stockholm Concert Hall. The cellist follows previous recipients Nina Stemme, Riccardo Muti, and the Vienna Philharmonic – and the first, chosen by Nilsson herself, Plácido Domingo.
Ahead of the announcement, Gramophone spoke to Yo-Yo Ma to ask him what receiving the prize means to the him.
Congratulations on winning the Birgit Nilsson Prize. Can I begin by asking what Birgit Nilsson herself means to you?
I'm gobsmacked! This is one of those ‘totally out of the blue’, unexpected things that happen occasionally, and you just say: ‘why me’? So this is all so recent, but I can give you some preliminary answers. First of all, it is such a great honour for this to be coming from the Foundation of someone who, although I never heard her sing live, I have admired so much forever. Last night I listened to more of her voice, and, boy, there's nothing like it! So there's that. But as I thought further about who Birgit Nilsson was, and continues to be, for so many people, I started to move beyond the extraordinariness of her legendary vocal talents, and to think about what she represented. She was born in 1918, and lived through some really, really tough periods in human society. And then for her to be told that as a farmer's daughter, you don't sing opera. But coming from five generations of farming has to leave a kind of intelligence about what it means to farm, about what land means. And then she sings Wagner, and I start to think about mythology, and the groundedness of where she came from, and obviously the lightness and humour with which she dealt with so many things – and you start to get more of a complex story, and of what it is it that sustained her.
The fact that she was both incredibly strong as a personality, but not arrogant. And the fact that when she did navigate not only through this historical period, but also being a woman at that time, and being in the opera world which is obviously complex, she never forgot where she came from, what she represented, and what her job was. And I want to think more and more about all of that, and how I can apply those values to the situation that we see in the world today, which is not so pleasant in so many aspects, with so many crises. How did Birgit Nilsson navigate through all of this? And how are we going to navigate through all this, and not lose our authentic selves?
What are some of the key ways you think Birgit Nilsson's life and legacy can shape your work in doing this?
Maybe I can apply some of what Birgit Nilsson did by going to places. Maybe out into nature, or to talk to ingenious people, or scientists, or other cultural people, and to say: ‘how can we actually help by bringing people together?’ That is what music does, it communes folk without ideology. So many people are in ideological compartments: you are this, therefore I won't talk to you. Well, maybe there's a place where you can actually bring people together where they can talk to one another, a safe place where they're not going to feel immediately attacked, a place where they can be vulnerable to one another, so much so that they actually start listening to one another. What are some ways to do that? It’s a great privilege to be a recipient of this prize, and I think the responsibility is to now try and figure out what that means.
I was talking to my good friend Emanuel Ax the other day and we were batting forth a number of ideas. And foremost among them was just the act of listening, and how we use listening as a starting point – because then the conversation is going to be richer. And from the conversation will come solutions and constructive paths forward, because nobody has all the answers, that much I know for sure, and so the only way out of whatever we're going through is if we actually open up to one another and really listen.
Birgit Nilsson saw supporting young artists as important, something that you share. How might her legacy inform you in doing this?
So, how can I, as an older person, accelerate custodial responsibility to the Gen-Zers who have a different view of the world to what I had when I grew up? Well, in some ways I can look to what she did, and I can look to other models to what people did – whether Pablo Casals or Isaac Stern, or just people who went out of their way to do things because it was the right thing to do even though they were extremely busy. And people might say to such people: ‘Oh, you're not leading your efficient life’. Well, should life always be efficient? All these social messages get bandied around today: you should do this, you shouldn't do that. But then there are people who have independent minds and say: ‘Wait a minute – I’m aware of that message, but I challenge that, and I need to say something about it’. And this is how I feel I can contribute and help.
Younger musicians don't have the ready-made paths that maybe people like me a generation beforehand had. There was a route to success: you win a competition, you get a record contact, you get a good review… but today it’s much more dispersed. Young people do have the advantage of a lateral connection to their peer group across the world, something I certainly didn't have, because they're part of a digital native generation, and so their concept of the world is different. But how do they turn that to their advantage? And how do you ensure cross-generation communication, which is harder because when you have lateral communication, the vertical communication is going to be less strong? Historical knowledge and appreciation is going to be less, because everything is happening laterally, or proportionally more so anyway.
One of the most important things you can offer young musicians is access. To say to them: if you ever think of something I can help with, here's access, here's my phone number. Whether you use it or not is up to you. But if we all gave access to somebody who needed some help, where we could maybe at some point give some kind of advice, that’s a good start.
As one of the leading artists recognised globally as an ambassador for classical music, you can act as a beacon for classical music to the wider world, and vice versa. That must be both a privilege and responsibility.
I've been thinking of artists, and scientists too, as being like scouts for society – just as you have scouts in other colonies of beings, ants, or whatever. Scouts for society. Scouts go a little further from where the density of the population is, to scout out where food is, and where danger is, where fertile ground is, and then they report back. And every living grouping has something like that. It’s like an early warning system. Birds do that to see where they should go as the climate changes, to see where the food is, and then they somehow signal back. So how do we do that for one another? I think scouts sometimes say 'we’re the most valuable people' – but they're not the most valuable unless they can somehow communicate that information back to the mainstream. The mainstream will say ‘we're the most valuable because that's where the action is, and what you do is not meaningful’. Not meaningful until it becomes meaningful – until they spot danger, or food, or opportunity. I think we each are constantly defining and redefining our roles as we switch from place to place. Sometimes I can be viewed as mainstream by someone who says ‘you're an old man, you've had a career’. But actually I am a scout because I’m trying to say to people ‘wait a minute, let me show you why what we do might be important to your child’.