New Classical Tracks: Yo-Yo Ma and friends celebrate the holidays

Yo-Yo Ma
Yo-Yo Ma -- Songs of Joy and Peace.
Album cover

The holidays are about coming together and finding different ways of enjoying each other's company.

Cellist Yo-Yo Ma has many fond memories of making music with friends and family during the holiday season. On his new release, he's created a recorded version of this musical party by inviting old friends and new ones to join him in creating "Songs of Joy and Peace."

Yo-Yo Ma's source of inspiration for his contribution to this musical family gathering was his own family. Each December they attend a Christmas Revels show in Cambridge, Mass., which is a holiday extravaganza representing winter in different lands.

"In the midst of all this, the whole audience sings, 'Dona Nobis Pacem,' this round. It's sung so beautifully, and we all look forward to doing it," said Ma. "It's actually a great moment of joy because we're all doing something, being in the present. Also, it's a very diverse group of people coming together and doing something beautifully. And that's a great moment of joy, which actually is also a moment of peace."

On this recording, that beautiful melody provides a thread of continuity. "Songs of Joy and Peace" features four different versions of "Dona Nobis Pacem" with various performers.

There are plenty of names you'll recognize on "Songs of Joy and Peace," such as Renee Fleming. Her contribution is an arrangement by Edgar Meyer of Blossom Dearie's "Touch the Hand of Love."

"Renee Fleming is someone I've known and admired for quite some time, but never had the opportunity to work with her. And she wanted to do this Blossom song, 'Touch the Hand of Love.' It's both introspective, and very touching," said Ma. "So we both came to Edgar Meyer and said, 'Would you mind doing a version for strings?' And Edgar brought Chris Thile around because Edgar's been trying to get me to meet Chris for three years now."

"So Chris, the great mandolin player, comes in and fits in with the band with Edgar, and two members of the Silk Road Ensemble," Ma continued. "It was both incredibly fun and humbling to see the level of generosity and talent that walked through the room day after day."

Each track on "Songs of Joy and Peace" has its own musical source, depending on the guest.

Alison Krauss chose a beautiful 11th century Irish carol. Fiddler Natalie McMaster wrote her tune. Jazz singer Diana Krall chose "You Couldn't Be Cuter," because it reminded her of her twins.

James Taylor picked "Here Comes the Sun," for the winter solstice. And then there are a few unexpected collaborators, like a ukulele virtuoso named Jake Shimabukuro.

"The ukulele is already a magical instrument, but there's something about his playing and being that is other-worldly, and I'm not alone in saying that," said Ma. "Towards the last day Jake came in, and he started playing, and I think everybody's hearts just stopped."

"The sound of the ukulele is kind of a precious sound, and the sound of the cello is designed to be an acoustic instrument to be heard in a 2,500-seat hall. It took quite a lot to figure out how to blend the two instruments together," Ma continued. "Finally, I figured out a way to play with the ukulele by taping a couple strands of horsehairs on the cello bow, so we could play with wonderful intimacy."

Sharing "Songs of Joy and Peace" is a wonderful way of bringing people together this holiday season. Whether you love classical, jazz, world music, or folk, the heart of this recording is the rich, engaging sound of a world-class cellist who really knows how to throw a great musical party.

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