The superstar cellist, who turns 60 this year, remains on a constant quest to, as he puts it, “better interpret the world” through performances and creative collaborations. He’ll appear in Seattle on May 3.
Yo-Yo Ma has long been one of the most recognizable classical musicians on the planet and one of today’s most committed spokesmen for the essential role of culture in society. Now that the superstar cellist is nearing 60, he might be excused for wanting to step back a bit and pass the heavy lifting along to others.
But no: With energies unabated, Ma remains on a constant quest to, as he puts it, “better interpret the world,” through performances and creative collaborations with like-minded friends, colleagues and arts and educational institutions — partnerships that leap across national boundaries.
For the last 15 years, his principal means of doing that has been his groundbreaking Silk Road Ensemble, an international nonprofit music collective dedicated to cross-cultural ambassadorship. Through its performances and more than 70 commissions, the group and its parent Silk Road Project are fusing different musical traditions to create a new kind of music for the 21st century, a synthesis whose larger purpose is, in his words, to “help us understand each other in our global society.”
If that sounds high-falutin’, the music that Ma and his Silk Roaders put out there can be anything but. Whether it’s via the piercing wails of Cristina Pato on the gaita (Iberian bagpipe) or a Near Eastern hoedown involving Kojiro Umezaki’s spectacular shakuhachi (Japanese wooden flute) playing, their concerts of cross-cultural exchange often resemble global block parties more than concerts, packed with the exhilaration of discovery.
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Such is likely to be the case Friday night when Ma and his Silk Road group return to Chicago’s Symphony Center as part of their 15th anniversary U.S. tour. (The cellist next appears in Seattle on May 3.) Their program will hold works inspired by musical traditions as diverse as Sicilian, Persian and Syrian, including the world premiere of a double concerto arrangement of Chinese composer Zhao Lin’s “Paramita.”
In a recent phone interview, Ma took time out from a Silk Road rehearsal with the New York Philharmonic to explain how he’s managed to keep things fresh and new over the life of his ensemble.
“The nice thing is there’s no lack of content,” he said. “Really, the world is the content. Our mixing and matching of repertory and players helps us better interpret the world. We change, the environment changes. How do we react to it? That’s an interesting question we’ve been asking ourselves the last couple of years.”
Finding common ground through the sharing of music always has been paramount with the ensemble, but Ma said the many close working friendships he and his colleagues have developed over the years has added a crucial dimension to Silk Road. The ensemble now has musicians from more than 20 countries, with a stable of regulars at its core.
“The biggest takeaway is that we all feel more human, as a member of the planet, knowing people from different worlds who may be our neighbors or who may live far away,” the cellist said. “The feedback we get from different audiences around the world has made all of us think more deeply about what we do. By opening wider, we’ve been able to go deeper.
”I think what we do now, we do with more care, love and meaning; we feel more connected. Anywhere you drop me in the world, I feel I can deal with whatever situation comes along — I didn’t use to feel that way. As awful as some places can be, the world is not frightening.“
Bottom line: Whether Ma is playing with Silk Road, performing at the White House or treating passersby to some impromptu Bach at the entrance to Chicago’s Millennium Park train station, his mission to promote better understanding across the global village will go on, he said.
“My great goal is for all cultural institutions to work together to be part of the solution for most of the intractable problems in our society. How do we act together to create greater good for everyone? That’s the question.”