Yo-Yo Ma wins $1 million

Yo-Yo Ma wins $1 million


norman lebrecht

May 17, 2022

The 2022 Birgit Nilsson Prize, worth $1 million, has been awarded to the cellist Yo-Yo Ma.

He is the first instrumental musician to receive the annual award.

The citation says: ‘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 said: ‘I wish I could have met Birgit Nilsson in person. Yet, she is alive for me through the recordings of her legendary voice and the legacy of her great generosity, her sense of humor, and a lifetime grounded in cultural values. It is a great privilege to receive this honor, and to play a small part in the legacy of one of our great musical role models, an artist whose attention was directed outward, toward young people and music’s role in creating a better world.’

­All shall have prizes? No just the same famous few.

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Picture: Yo-Yo playing outside the Russian Embassy in DC this March.­

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  • John Dalkas says:

    “All shall have prizes? No just the same famous few.”

    Who do you propose for the prize?

  • Brian says:

    Ah, well, it’s nice that this struggling cellist can finally afford a better instrument and get that recording project underway.

    • Scordatura says:

      I think you might want to again read the rational that the BN Prize folks provide and ask yourself if that could possibly apply to an artist struggling to build a career. Clearly this is not that kind of an award when past recipients of the Birgit Nilsson Prize include Nina Stemme, Ricardo Muti, Placido Domingo and the Vienna Philharmonic. I realize this information will fuel the Muti-Domingo bashers that frequent this forum, but there it is.

      Don’t get me wrong. I’m all for awards that benefit young artists who could always use a financial boost for better instruments and recording projects. There are pathways like competitions, foundation grants, etc. for young artists, albeit the dearth and difficulties involved.

      And who is to say that Yo-Yo won’t use this prize money to aid young artists? Yo-Yo Ma is a national treasure (just as Birgit Nilsson’s legacy remains an international treasure) and I, for one, am pleased to read that he is being honored for his artistry and his engagement.

      • Kerry says:

        Well said Yo-YO will spend the money wisely.
        God Bless.

      • Sar Dinia says:

        How can you possibly compare Ma to Nilsson? He is an average good cellist, with none of the genius of players like Starker. He does a good job with a pleasant personality and that’s all!

  • william osborne says:

    He has also been awarded The Glenn Gould Prize in 1999, the National Medal of Arts in 2001, the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2011, and the Polar Music Prize in 2012. He was also named a UN Messenger of Peace.

    This is the reward for never voicing a word of protest against the establishment. He is the all-round generic cultural alibi. Someone who received the Presidential Medal of Freedom, for example, is unlikely to have publicly noted that the US military has killed about 4 million people since WWII in illegal and unjustified wars. He is unlikely to have addressed the massive ghettoization of American cities. He is unlikely to speak about the fundamental dysfunctionality of the American government and the rise of right wing parties in Europe. Nary a word in those days when the Vienna Phil categorically excluded women and Asians like himself. As always in the arts, conformity is rewarded, non-conformity punished. Let us bring up a younger generation of artists less willing to conform and more willing to speak truth to power.

    • Anson says:

      Yes, Yo Yo ma was on the verge of changing American interventionism, of fixing our cities, of making American government functional, of stymying the rise of the right wing in Europe, and fixing diversity in the arts–if only he hadn’t been given those darn prizes! He could have fixed it all!

    • A.L. says:

      This is the finest distillation about what this is about.

    • Anon says:

      And yet, here is an artist who was on tour in Colorado the day after 9/11 & instead of cancelling like everyone else, went ahead with his program to offer comfort. I will never forget that.

      Many people were frightened & uncomfortable getting covid shots. There was Yo Yo Ma in the Berkshires, getting his shot like everyone else & then taking out his cello to play Bach to soothe everyone. I was watching online in another country but seeing that, I knew I’d be OK getting mine.

      When Chef Jose Andres’ World Kitchen was bombed as his team was preparing meals for Ukrainian refugees, it was Yo Yo Ma who came forward with a video playing in honor of the chef & his injured workers.

      Sure, these are small, non-controversial gestures, but to many of us they show that humanitarianism still exists & that musicians can lead the way.

      Musicians shouldn’t have to be out there on soapboxes decrying war or the military or taking polarizing political positions. That’s from another era, very 60’s and 70 ish, William. We are not all Pete Seegers.

      I’ve played with artists like Valentina Lisitsa who are still living in that “I’m going to take a political stance as a musician” era. She is very uncomfortable to play with & to listen to because you never know when she’ll interrupt her music making to make some kind of political point. It overshadows her music. She polarizes audiences. Her outspokeness disrespects the music, which is what she should be there for.

      Sometimes the best change, the most important effect which we as musicians can have is gentle & positive & non controversial: reinforcing good. People stop listening when you yell at them, William. Everyone is still listening to Yo Yo Ma.

      • Tamino says:

        You knew you were safe getting the Covid shot, after you saw Yo-Yo getting his? Seriously?

        • Anon says:

          Seriously. He was playing beautifully right after getting his shot. I had a concert the night I got mine. I wasn’t sure if I’d be able hold my instrument or be in any condition to play. He was just fine so I figured I’d be too.

    • Elissa says:

      I would like to know what you have done to solve all those ills (besides make snide comments on the internet, that is).

      • Alan says:

        Agreed. What about the Silk Road Ensemble? Bringing together musicians from various, often conflicting traditions?

        Mr. Osborne your diatribe above is one of the most mean spirited things I’ve ever read. Yo Yo Ma is a musician. Not Ghandi or Jesus Christ.

  • A.L. says:

    So Ma receives $1mm from the Nilsson Foundation, eh? A few problems, as I see it. First, he is not a singer. Second, he is complicit in the watering down of serious music through his misguided and irrelevant New Agey and pop ventures, something Birgit Nilsson never once did! This earned this individual $1mm from this foundation? What a sham and insult!

  • Brian Bell says:

    This is an award that is thrown in the right direction. He will use these funds to sponsor aspiring students, help a struggling ensemble, and truly “promote music where it is becoming marginalized”. He is that kind of guy.

  • William Osborne says:

    Whoops! My above comment should read “rise of FAR-right parties,” not right wing. There’s nothing wrong with the traditional right, especially in Europe where the mainstream right is part of a social democratic system that would make them similar to Bernie Sanders in the States.

  • chet says:

    These music prizes are just one big circle j—, an occasion for prize giver and prize recipient to stroke each other’s inflated egos.

  • Alan says:

    Prizes tend to go to people of talent and skill. Not to “all”.

    We don’t live in a Communist state thankfully.

    Yo Yo Ma is an exceptional artist and his multiple collaborations are endlessly interesting.

    I suspect the money will be used at least in part to further these collaborations. And good for him.

    • Joan says:

      Endlessly interesting? I somewhat beg to differ……and I play the cello. I cannot think of another cellist I dread more to hear one more time, especially Ma’s seemingly favorite Bach’s suite for unaccompanied cello.

  • chet says:

    Oh silly me, re my post above, I didn’t even have to self-censure, the term “circle jerk” has long entered polite lexicon making it’s appearance in the Oxford English Dictionary.

    So yes, these prizes are one big circle jerk.

  • Sean says:

    This radically unrestrained culture of celebrating Mr. Ma always felt somewhat bizarre to me. Surely the briefcase full of cash could’ve been spent on something more humanitarian.

    He already is as rich and as famous as it’s possible to get as a musician of his sort.

    • aleph says:

      The Birgit Nilsson Peace Prize would’ve been a bit over the top.

      All other major humanitarian fields are taken.

      That basically left classical music for Birgit’s prize.

      But unfortunately in classical music, for every Toscanini who opposed Mussolini, there is a Furtwangler, a Karajan, a Boehm. Slim pickings indeed, but you work with what you got, so Yo Yo Ma is not that bad.

      Hey, look on the bright side, Yo Yo Ma is an improvement over the Vienna Philharmonic, as far as Nazi past is concerned.

  • Linda Beuret says:

    Shocked to read all the mean natured, catty responses to a great Artist receiving a prize that he will no doubt use to further the causes he has espoused over the years- encouraging young artists, bringing examples of world music to share, demonstrating against war the way he can-playing outside the Russian embassy. He is reknown for working with and encouraging cooperation between nations. You use your talent in the way you can. Shame on the jealous do nothings!

  • Joan says:

    No, the same few Chinese musicians in particular for a seemingly unknown reason

  • Greg Hlatky says:

    The more superficial the business, the more awards and prizes it hands out.

  • Gustavo says:

    His “Don Quixote” with BSO and Nelsons is stunning!

  • Nick2 says:

    It is surely wrong to criticise Yo-Yo Ma when he did not decide to give himself the prize. He is rightly an esteemed artist and should be judged for that artistry.

    The fault that I find with this prize is that it was Ms. Nilsson who determined that it should go only to one artist or one group (although I believe it can be split into two artists – why the Trustees have never taken this route is beyond me!) Frankly I do not know the other criteria but giving monstrously large prizes like this to already very rich artists and groups is, as far as I am concerned, outright ridiculous. I only heard the soprano once in a performance of Elektra. Her Brunnhilde on the Solti recording is glorious. But those who persuaded her – or agreed with her decision – to give such a massive dollop of cash only to those at the top of the tree was surely a grave mistake.

    I fully agree that giving much smaller amounts to individual younger artists and ensembles just starting their careers would probably result in even more controversy. There are just too many artists out there. But there must have been more thoughtful and creative ways in considering a prize of this magnitude than making the rich richer.

  • freddynyc says:

    Looks like it’s time to start another silly gimmick like Silk Road Ensemble to offset his boring lackluster career…….

  • William-Michael Costello says:

    I‘ve been in this business all my life and it is tough, but what I read here from so many small minded assholes is simply over the top. He received the award for his great accomplishments as an artist. He is a quiet unassuming person who has help many young artists without publicizing it. If you never got to know him then your missing a very fine and generous person. One very successful cellist and conductor said to me, with Yo Yo he really learned the cello.

  • Sar Dinia says:

    What a colossal waste of money, going to one of the wealthiest musicians in the world. Let’s hope he has the class to give it away.