The World, Through The Creative Mind Of Yo-Yo Ma

Kayhan Kalhor playing the kamancheh with Yo-Yo Ma during a
Silk Road Ensemble concert in Izmir, Turkey
(Aykut Usletekin/International Izmir Festival)
Kayhan Kalhor playing the kamancheh with Yo-Yo Ma during a Silk Road Ensemble concert in Izmir, Turkey (Aykut Usletekin/International Izmir Festival)

When you hear Yo-Yo Ma play, it changes you. Not only is he the cello’s leading interpreter of the great repertory, but when he plays the Dvorak concerto, or Prokofiev’s Symphony-Concerto, it becomes more than just great music. Through charisma, effortless technique and sheer enjoyment of the process, he transforms.

He’s been transforming the nature of music-making as well, for 15 years now. His Silk Road Ensemble, bringing an anniversary concert to Symphony Hall for the Celebrity Series of Boston on March 4, has jolted the musical notions of eastern, western, classical, world and folk.

“Everything is being upended,” he says, talking about the world, and not just about music. “Nowadays we don’t have a philosophy that can hold all the ideas of culture together, and we’ve outpaced our ability to make sense of things. It’s had some disastrous consequences. In a nanosecond economies can surge or flounder, in ways that are out of control.”

The Silk Road Ensemble performing at the Mondavi Center at the University of California, Davis in 2011. (Max Whittaker)
The Silk Road Ensemble performing at the Mondavi Center at the University of California, Davis in 2011. (Max Whittaker)

Ma is talking about globalization, and changes—the good and the bad. If anyone outside of politics and economics is qualified to comment on globalization, it's this man.

Born to Chinese parents, in Paris, his is one of those names that needs no qualification to be recognized. Yo-Yo Ma moves easily in any circle. He plays for presidents, on the largest stages of the world, with the greatest orchestras. But he also shares a smile and a good word easily in his Cambridge neighborhood, when he’s in town, just one of the locals.

The Silk Road Ensemble is an extension of his personality, and of his embrace of musical languages. It’s a loose knit coalition of players, its name conjuring up the ancient trading route that linked cultures from Europe to Asia. Eclecticism and inclusion make up the mission.

It’s not a trick, or a marketing ploy. It’s a vision.

“In music we make all these different compartments,” Ma says. “‘Classical music is not part of world music’—when did that happen? There are a certain number of things that cross all boundaries, like climate change. What is the role of music? Music is just sound, period. It’s organized by the times a person lives in, and the combination of ancient and new. Sounds can travel; anyone can travel. This is one way to look at it.”

“My impression of Yo-Yo’s goals is that he wants to empower Silk Road,” says cellist Mike Block, part of the touring ensemble. “He wants to take what we’ve learned, and spread the DNA. He sees Silk Road primarily as an idea, and the idea is gaining traction.”

Trying to increase that traction has resulted in the Global Musicians Workshop, a Silk Road initiative that will debut this summer at Depauw University in Greencastle, Indiana. A one-week music camp for professional and semi-professional musicians from many cultures, Block calls it “an intense, performance-oriented experience.”

Block has run his own stringed-instrument camps for years now, “but they are geared to players in western styles. Here we are spreading the net much further culturally.”

The workshops include instructions in Japanese flute, Arabic oud, American folk, Indian tabla, world percussion and Block’s own multi-style strings. Ma and Block chose DePauw, home of the 21-Century Music Initiative, because of the network that already exists in Greencastle between the teaching institution there and community based performance scene.

“They’ve had full faculty acceptance of a multi-disciplinary curriculum already,” Ma says of Depauw, “but what’s remarkable is that they also work closely with the community.”

“Mike is an absolute original,” Ma says. “When I first heard him, it was amazing, right out of the box. He was fearless and articulate. Then I found out that he runs these string camps, and we thought this would be a great fit, given his organizational talents and creativity. He’s someone who works closely with musicians in western styles, but also oud players and people who do folk and fiddling.”

The camp runs from June 8 through 12, and is already filling fast. When we spoke in January, Block said, “we didn’t announce it until December, and it’s already halfway full. We’re aiming at 40 students.

“We’re looking for a way of connecting a new generation to the Silk Road family. It’s really impossible to say what our goals are, but everything I play is a part of myself. When I play Bach, when I play bluegrass, I’m playing a different part of my personality. If students come and are pushed in five different directions, then they will all have different personal journeys.”

The Silk Road Ensemble with Yo-Yo Ma performs Wednesday, March 4 at 8 p.m. at Symphony Hall. Tickets are available through the Celebrity Series of Boston website or by calling 617-482-6661.

Keith Powers, former music critic at the Boston Herald, now freelances for a number of newspapers and magazines. Follow him on Twitter at @PowersKeith.

Keith Powers Classical Music Writer
Keith Powers is a classical music critic for The ARTery.



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