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Yo-Yo Ma performs at the 2010 New Yorker Festival on Oct. 2, 2010 in New York City.

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The brilliant American cellist and all-around nice guy Yo-Yo Ma has been heard everywhere from Sesame Street to the Obama inauguration. And he has a unique connection with Toronto: It was largely through his efforts that Harbourfront Centre's Music Garden, at the foot of Spadina Avenue, was located in the city. Ma plays lots of contemporary music, and also world music in his Silk Road Ensemble. However, his recital this Thursday (Oct. 14) with pianist Kathryn Stott at the Royal Conservatory's Koerner Hall is largely a classical affair: music by Schubert, Franck, Shostakovich and other composers.

How did your engagement to play at Koerner Hall come about?

I knew the hall was being built, and I've heard that it's gorgeous. Of course, I've already played in Toronto many times, at Roy Thomson and Massey - and I got to know many people in the city when we were working on the Music Garden. So playing in Toronto always feels like a homecoming.

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How many recitals will you be playing this season?

Maybe 25, or 50. I don't know.

Do you worry that the traditional classical recital is in decline?

I think survival requires a number of components. Traditions that don't evolve will die. Each generation has to reinvent the reasons for something to survive, or it won't. The same is true with democracy - these things have to be constantly reinvented. This doesn't mean that the actual value will die, because it's there to be rediscovered. It's our choice whether to keep something that's valuable alive and familiar.

The cello is often thought of as an instrument with a small repertoire. Is that fair to say?

It depends on your point of view. If you're a bass trombone player, the cello repertoire looks big, and if you're a conductor it looks small. But so many of the cellists who have come before me have done much to expand it - Casals, Piatigorsky, Rose, and Rostropovich, who single-handedly increased it by about 40 per cent by commissioning many new works. At this point, the cello has a repertoire equal to any instrument.

You're involved with many kinds of music, especially music from the Middle East and Asia through your Silk Road Ensemble. Do you find this has an effect on your performances of Western classical music?

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The more I do with Silk Road, the more I become a better musician in general. It makes me rethink Schubert and Shostakovich. You don't check part of yourself in the coat room when you go to play a concert - you bring your whole self. Everything I learn becomes applicable. One of the big values I was taught about music was to think of the biggest picture possible, to think of the universal. But you also have to think about the most minute details in the present. Whose voice are you advocating for? What time period are you advocating for? That's what makes a performance memorable.

You've played for many U.S. presidents, but last year you played with a Canadian prime minister. What was it like accompanying Stephen Harper in a concert at the National Arts Centre in Ottawa?

It was a very pleasant experience. We met very quickly and we played a Beatles song he knew. He loves to play the piano, which is wonderful. I really try to encourage that kind of musical expression - not just in prime ministers, but in people in general. You can use music for relaxation and entertainment, and to further your imagination, because that's what music does.

This interview has been condensed and edited.

Special to The Globe and Mail

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