How to explain the genius of Yo-Yo Ma? The basic facts are easy: he is, quite simply, one of the most famous musicians of all time, a global figure whose list of accolades – the National Medal of Arts, the Presidential Medal of Freedom, honorary doctorates, and countless Grammys – puts him in a league of his own. And while his accomplishments could fill all kinds of blogs, a mere enumeration could never get to the heart of the matter. That lies, at least as I see it, in a unique approach to music-making as communal aesthetic and social project.
Yo-Yo Ma receiving the Presidential Medal of Freedom
Let me try to unpack that by going back to Sunday, March 18. I was, as is often the case, at Symphony Center. The afternoon program was billed, quite simply, as Yo-Yo Ma and CSO Musicians. That was an entirely accurate description for an event that featured work by Johannes Brahms and Bohuslav Martinů in addition to some contemporary composers.
Johannes Brahms and Bohuslav Martinů
But it doesn’t capture what actually happened on stage. There was Yo-Yo Ma, serving as MC and ambassador, chatting with the audience and bringing everyone into the experience. And there was Yo-Yo Ma, the musician, performing a breath-taking composition for two cellos with John Sharp, the Chicago Symphony Orchestra’s principal cellist. A treat to see two of the instrument’s greatest living masters performing together. A master class in technique and beauty of sound; but what I remember most vividly from Mexican composer Samuel Zyman’s piece is the communication between the musicians, a constant exchange of facial expressions, gestures, and musical lines. It was the same in the Brahms Quintet, which was anchored by Robert Chen, our orchestra’s supremely gifted concertmaster. The two instrumentalists were practically screaming the phrases at one another, producing a reading so intense I was literally at the edge of my seat.
I have heard my fair share of chamber music, both performed by long-standing formations like the Beaux Arts Trio or the Pacifica Quartet and such ad-hoc groupings as were playing that day. But there was something different about these performances, something I attributed to Yo-Yo Ma’s unique gift for talking with and through music. His music-making has an urgent, dialogical quality that draws you in. “This matters,” it says, not just in terms of the music itself, but as a collective act, a form of community formation.
Robert Chen (far left), Yo-Yo Ma, and other citizen musicians
It’s this commitment, I think, that has turned Yo-Yo Ma into an activist. His concept of the citizen musician expresses it perfectly. It takes music beyond a trivial sense of mere entertainment, treats it instead as a constitutive act of the social. Community, it says, starts by joining together in a common conversation – and music, both played and experienced, is the ideal-typical form of that conversation.
Yo-Yo Ma and Renée Fleming at Lake View High School
It makes me tremendously proud that our city is the hub for this far-reaching project, which Yo-Yo Ma is spearheading in his role as the Chicago Symphony Orchestra’s Judson and Joyce Green Creative Consultant. If you haven’t done so already, please, check out the CSO’s Citizen Musician website!
All of us at the CHF are thrilled that Yo-Yo Ma will grace our stage in an event organized and presented in partnership with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. I can’t wait to hear the extraordinary musician perform with his colleagues. But I am most excited that he will share his vision of citizen musicianship with the CHF audience. He will do so in conversation with Damian Woetzel, former ballet star, Director of the Aspen Institute Arts Program, and a fellow member of the President’s Committee on the Arts and the Humanities. It is a powerful message, one that needs to be heard by as many people as possible!
Damian Woetzel and Yo-Yo Ma
108: Sun, Oct. 14 7:30 - 8:30 PM
Tags: Yo-Yo Ma, cellist, Symphony Center, CSO Musicians, John Sharp, Robert Chen, Damian Woetzel, Aspen Institute Arts Program, President’s Committee on the Arts and the Humanities, Chicago Humanities Festival, Matti Bunzl