Do you still remember me?
A young musical prodigy writes to Leonard Bernstein
On this day in 1965, a 10-year-old cellist wrote to one of his musical idols, Leonard Bernstein, and very politely invited him to an upcoming performance.
138 East 94th Street, New York, NY
21 December 1965
Dear Mr. Bernstein,
Do you still remember me? Now I am ten years old. This year I learned with Prof. Leonard Rose three concertos: Saint-Saëns’, Boccherini’s and Lalo’s. Last week my sister and I played in a Christmas Concert in Juilliard School. We are invited to give a joint recital in Brearley School on January 19, 1966 at 1:45 p.m.
If you have time, I would be glad to play for you.
This was the same Yo-Yo Ma who would eventually ascend to international stardom, becoming one of the world's most renowned cellists. But right now he was a young boy brimming with talent and ambition, eagerly reaching out to a figure he admired and had met once before in the most incredible of circumstances. On November 29, 1962, in a grand setting before a 5,000-strong audience that included President John F. Kennedy, First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy, and Dwight D. Eisenhower, Bernstein had introduced the young cellist and his pianist sister, Yeou-Cheng Ma, gifted siblings who had recently moved to the U.S. with their parents.
Thankfully, footage exists…
[Leonard Bernstein’s speech]
Another aspect of that double stream of art I mentioned earlier flowing into and out of America, has long been the attraction of our country to foreign artists, and scientists and thinkers, who have come not only to visit us, but often to join us as Americans, to become citizens of what to some has historically been the land of opportunity and to others the land of freedom. And in this great tradition, there has come to us, this year, a young man aged 7, bearing the name Yo-Yo Ma. Now Yo-Yo came to our attention through the great master Pablo Casals who had recently heard the boy play the cello. Yo-Yo is, as you may have guessed, Chinese, and has lived up to now in France—a highly international type. But he and his family are now here. His father is teaching school in New York, and his 11-year-old sister, Yeou-Cheng Ma, is pursuing her musical studies, and they are all hoping to become American citizens. We shall now have the pleasure of hearing Yo-Yo Ma, accompanied by his sister Yeou-Cheng Ma, play the first movement of the Concertino No. 3 in A Major, by Jean-Baptiste Breval, who played, taught, and composed for the cello 150 years ago in France. Now, here’s a cultural image for you to ponder as you listen: a 7-year-old Chinese cellist, playing old French music, for his new American compatriots.
Welcome Yo-Yo Ma and Yeou-Cheng Ma.
As Yo-Yo Ma grew, so did his relationship with Bernstein. They met on numerous occasions over the years, their mutual admiration deepening each time. This connection is movingly illustrated in a 1990 New York Times article in which Bernstein’s final hours are described:
Two hours before his death from a heart attack at 6:15 P.M. Sunday, Bernstein was visited by Bright Sheng, the young Chinese composer who had orchestrated “Arias and Barcarolles.”
“When I walked in, he was watching a Yo-Yo Ma simulcast,” Mr. Sheng said. “They were playing Rachmaninoff, and he was humming along. He looked himself, was very much himself and we spoke about many things. He was lucid, even witty. I was happy for him at that moment.”
Before you go…
Tickets are now on general sale for our Letters Live show in New York on 16th May 2024. Visit this link to grab a seat. It’s all for a good cause.