Léonie Sonning Awards 2006

Yo-Yo Ma

Yo-Yo Ma received the Léonie Sonning Music Prize of DKK 500,000 at a concert held on 10 December in The Danish Opera House, Main Stage. The prize was presented by the conductor Michael Schønwandt.

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
Saint-Saëns The Swan

Performed by:
Yo-Yo Ma, cello
Kathryn Stott, piano


The 2006 Léonie Sonning Music Prize of DKK 500,000 is awarded to the cellist Yo-Yo Ma for, with his technical mastery and great musicality, has set a new standard for cello playing, for his untiring contribution to communicating classical music at the highest level to the whole world, and for his epoch-making work to unite the music of different cultures in a common humanist expression.

Master class in connection with the prize-giving ceremony

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.

Yo-Yo Ma in Denmark

Before handing over the prize, conductor Michael Schønwandt gave this speech to the recipient:

“How is it that music such as we have heard it today can move us so deeply? The colours of the notes, the glow of a human voice or a particular chord seem to transform us? The perception of sound, which is one of the most basic forms of communication between human beings, is deeply rooted in us. The fact that the sense of hearing is fully developed seven months before we are born means that we understand the sound of an utterance several years before we understand the spoken word. I am convinced that when the sound contains a true message from one human being to another, we understand it and are capable of receiving it without language, time or culture preventing us from doing so. We communicate with each other at a profound level that no other sense can attain.

That is what makes music so unique, so indispensable. And it is precisely what you do when you play for an audience, Yo-Yo, because your message is so strong, because your musicality is so fine, and because you have such a phenomenal mastery of your instrument. You open our souls and speak to us – and let us speak to ourselves – and to you. Such an unforgettable moment was your performance of the Schumann Cello Concerto here in Copenhagen a few years ago – a concerto full of technical challenges that have to be solved before one can start to unfold Schumann’s unique poetical world. This monologue – the description of the eternal search of the human soul for a dialogue with the world, reacting to every little movement and nevertheless ultimately alone – was a unique experience for everyone present, thanks to your complete sympathetic understanding of the music and your ability to convey this to every member of the audience and the orchestra [...]

In the present time, where the world seems to be setting up more physical and mental barriers for security reasons, your struggle to keep the world open and accessible to everyone is more important than ever before.”

The thunderous, long applause and enthusiastic cries at the Opera House only died down when Yo-Yo Ma started to speak. He said, among other things:

“I am deeply honoured to receive this prize. When I look at the list of those who have received the prize before today, I see the names of people who have been role models, inspirations, heroes for Kathy (the pianist) and myself – and many of them have also been my mentors. So it is fantastic to be in the company of them and all of you today. I have learned two things today, firstly: this is an absolutely fantastic opera house – my congratulations! And secondly, I learned – and this is something statistical – that among all the peoples of the world the Danes are the happiest. I hope all of you are extremely happy!

But what makes it so meaningful and exciting for me to receive this prize is that I know what obligation the Music Foundation feels for the education of young people. Yesterday I heard three of the most wonderful young cellists at a master class – this is also something the Music Foundation organises.

When I started to play, I learned something of true value: that what we do when we play music is larger than ourselves, and I believe that the Sonning Music Foundation will continue a vision of the future that I know its committee members are so committed to turning into reality. And in that spirit – the spirit of our common future – I accept the Sonning Music Prize. I am so grateful and I would also like to say – on behalf of myself, Kathy and my family – that I am so happy to have been awarded this great prize.”

You can listen to both speeches here:

Selected Music by Yo-Yo Ma

The daily press

wrote, among other things:

“On this occasion it was the classical side of Yo-Yo Ma that was in focus, and in an engaging way he did not behave as a star. The programme comprised sonatas and duets with a pianist very much his equal, Kathy Stott. It was obvious that they are so used to playing together. Concepts such as cello melody and piano accompaniment lost their meaning when the phrasing was so sensitive as in the slow movement of Schubert’s ’Arpeggione’ sonata. Every single note had its exactly balanced weight and significance. That the piece is notorious among cellists for its difficulty – it was actually written for a completely different instrument that is no longer played – was something one did not notice in the slightest.”

(Mikael Garnæs, review in Kristeligt Dagblad)

“He [Yo-Yo Ma] gives of himself one hundred per cent, continuing for more than two and a half hours and playing no less than three of the greatest cello sonatas ever written, plus some small change. And it is not only his name, by the way, that has plenty of Y chromosomes. His playing has too. Practically every movement begins attacca, as it says – without a pause, a turning of a page, sometimes without taking a breath. If less experienced souls consider a clapping salvo en route, they can just as well abandon the idea.

[...] But in the hands of Yo-Yo, it [Schubert’s Arpeggione] becomes almost entertaining. So much is he in contact with himself and his instrument and his pianist. And when one comes to Shostakovich’s great sonata, one has forgotten everything about life outside. The [...] super-cellist does not only tell a fascinating story. He also gets a host of ideas no one has ever heard before. [...]

Yo-Yo Ma is not only the world’s greatest cellist. He is also one of the world’s greatest musicians. And what is more his nature is friendly, sympathetic and spontaneous. ’You open our souls and let us speak to ourselves,’ the awarder of the prize, Michael Schønwandt, said afterwards.

One is in the best company in the world, so much is certain.”

(Søren H. Schauser, review in Berlingske Tidende)