Yo-Yo Ma visits Hill Auditorium to talk “culture, understanding and survival”

Wednesday, February 27, 2019 - 11:22pm

Cellist Yo-Yo Ma speaks out on the beginnings of his career in Hill Auditorium Wednesday.

Cellist Yo-Yo Ma speaks out on the beginnings of his career in Hill Auditorium Wednesday. Buy this photo
Courtesy of Ben Hsu, Michiganensian

In the packed Hill Auditorium of about 3,500 students, staff and local Ann Arbor residents, Yo-Yo Ma walked out dressed in a black suit matched with a light pink tie. He looked to the crowd, glasses perched on the tip of his nose, standing adjacent to a $2.5 million dollar cello named “Petunia.” At least he didn’t leave it in a taxi this time, he joked.

The world renowned cellist was not in Ann Arbor to play a Bach concert suit or to perform with the Silk Road Ensemble — he came to talk about culture, understanding and survival.

Starting in August 2018, Ma began his two-year tour of the Bach Project. Ma will travel across the globe to iconic venues like The Red Rock Amphitheatre in Colorado, Washington National Cathedral in Washington, D.C. and to Ann Arbor’s very own Hill Auditorium. Ma’s project stresses in a world which is constantly changing and threatened by division, it is the role of culture and the arts to shape a better future.

The Bach Project does not just celebrate art in its musical form. It also attempts to analyze and rejoice in the diverse ways that art makes each community, each society and the unified planet stronger.

Born in Paris, Ma began playing cello at age four. By age seven, he had played for both presidents Dwight D. Eisenhower and John F. Kennedy. After graduating high school at age fifteen, he studied with Leonard Rose at Julliard, and then obtained an anthropology degree at Harvard University. He has toured as a soloist with a multitude of distinguished orchestras, holds eighteen Grammys, won a Medal of Freedom, made a small appearances on “The Simpsons,” “The West Wing,” and performed on an NPR Music Tiny Desk Concert. Ma is now touring the world in hopes of promoting a seemingly ancient message from Johann Sebastian Bach.

After playing a snippet from Bach on the piano, Ma told the crowd that the selection was just one of 25 different variations of the same piece.

“All music is based on variation,” Ma said. “In fact, I would go as far as to say that all life is based on variation. There is infinite variation that exists in nature, and in human nature. Today, we are acutely aware that there is nothing more constant than change. Constant, continual, unrelenting change. But, every change has a starting point and ending point. Just like a spiral, we keep surrounding the same evolving things.”

These variations resonated with LSA sophomore Colleen Jones. She told The Daily after the event that she thought it was interesting that someone like Ma could be so consciousness of these ideas.

“It is interesting he thinks about and understand the mutability and the ever-changing nature of life in general,” Jones said. “Mutability is like the one constant in our lives — we all have these variations. For Yo-Yo it wasn’t just being an artist it was also his social impact.”

There are three specific variations and changes Ma said impacted his life and have defined his world view and thinking. He noted although these variations might not appear in a standard biography, they are essential to how he practices being a cultural citizen and musician.

For the first variation, he took the audience back to the beginnings of his life and career and mentioned the constant stress from his two musician “tiger parents,” and the importance of practicing, or what he calls “the first principal of music.”

“Scales, arpeggios: that was my daily diet,” Ma said. “But, I want to talk about a different kind of practice — the practice of experimentation and experience. This is the practice that helped me move from being a cellist to a musician, to thinking about being a cultural citizen. It is through the practice of experience and experiment that we invented culture, and it is through the continual practice of experience and experiments that culture evolves. Life, I’ve found is full of infinite variety.”

He said he found this variety in college. One day, he went to the doctor after being questioned about his limp by his future wife and was diagnosed with scoliosis. He had two options: either get a difficult surgery right then or wait until age 23. Once he was engaged, ready to start a family at 23, he thought surgery would be the right choice.

“Inevitably, I play like it’s the last time I will ever play a piece,” Ma said. “The fact, that I confronted that as a possibility in the beginning of my performing life. That I could access that feeling at any given moment; that is success. I even grew two inches. Through the surgery, I was given a gift, of liberation. Every day after that I was given a gift.”

Ma then transitioned to his second variation. While studying at Harvard, Ma was exposed to French culture, Russian studies and the German language. However, Ma loved anthropology and archeology the most. He became fascinated with the Kalahari Bushmen tribe and their distinct music, which is found in one of the oldest human rituals today. While traveling to Botswana, he had the honor to meet the !Kung tribe of the Kalahari Bushmen, participating in these ceremonies.

“I interviewed this one woman and asked, ‘why do you do this?’” Ma said. “She looked at me and replied; ‘because it gives us meaning.’ That is exactly what culture is for: it gives us meaning. How powerful, how simple, how true: it gives us all meaning.”

Ma sais his last variation happened only eight days ago. He and his wife had just returned from the Galapagos Islands. He talks about the bird, lizards and sea lions all living peacefully, evolving over time. He recalled the case of finches, who underwent changes in a short period of time.

“We do not see evolution as theory, but as a direct result, as experiences and experiments, not unlike culture,” Ma said. “In this case, natures’ experiences and experiments. Therefore, human activity becomes a dominant force on our planet.The result of our experiences, and our experiments, will be measurable hundreds of years from now.”

LSA sophomore Elizabeth Haley told The Daily she found the idea of current choices having a visible effect to be exceptionally striking.

“I was listening to this podcast that was talking about dreams and life and it said that each night if you were allowed to dream any situation in your life, eventually you would come to where you are now,” Haley said. “Which is similar to how each choice you make has such a large impact on your life, as Yo-Yo said, that our everyday choices can impact even seven generations from now and we should want to get to where we are now in our culture.”

To end the talk, Ma assured the audience that as a culture, each and every person is in charge of their own evolution and it is their personal responsibility to enact change.

Each event of the Bach Project is particular to the local community in which Ma is presenting. Tomorrow, Ma will spearhead a Day of Action in Flint, an event he called “Flint Voices: Culture, Community and Resilience.” It will include a day-long series of activities and over 50 Flint-based community leaders speaking about cultural collaboration and social change. There will be a wide spectrum of performances, including one from Ma, himself, mixed with singer-songwriters, visual art shows, intricate dances and live storytelling.

For LSA junior Laura Thomas, the idea of understanding culture can be implementing at this Day of Action, simply, by starting a conversation.

“Someone in the Q&A asked Yo-Yo what he’s looking forward to tomorrow in Flint and he said ‘starting conversations,’” Thomas said. “He talked about how each place he visits offers different perspectives and conversations... This can go along with building and understanding culture with all these different perspectives.”