Celebrated cellist Yo-Yo Ma recently made a surprising admission: He didn’t feel comfortable as a musician until he was 49. That was just 12 years ago, decades after he’d achieved global renown. At the same time, he realized that “my greatest passion was actually people.”
Ma, the Judson and Joyce Green Creative Consultant of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, offered this revelation during an event sponsored by the Economic Club of Chicago, held May 10 at Symphony Center. His passions — for people, for music, for life — were eminently apparent during interactions with fellow musicians and audience members in a Q&A session moderated by Jay Henderson, former chairman of the CSO’s board of trustees, as well as former vice chairman for client service of PricewaterhouseCoopers. Alternately joking and serious, the charmingly self-deprecating Ma fielded questions from Henderson and others that mainly focused on how the arts positively impact education and the culture at large.
The event, titled “A Conversation About Cultural Citizenship,” was complemented by three brief musical interludes — including works by Bach, Handel, Joplin and a poignant ode sung by mezzo-soprano Sarah Ponder called “My Love” — that featured Ma with members of the CSO (violinists Mihaela Ionescu and Simon Michal, violist Danny Lai, bassist Daniel Armstrong, clarinetist John Bruce Yeh and percussionist Patricia Dash) and the Civic Orchestra of Chicago, as well as students from the People’s Music School.
“I think anything that is memory that’s coded in science, in the arts, is a building block,” Ma said after describing an enlightening visit he’d made the previous day to the Walt Disney Magnet School on Chicago’s North Side. There, he’d talked with students and watched them showcase works in a variety of media: musical, visual art and spoken word. “By that I mean it’s something that is so good and solid that somebody else can take [what’s] been done — in the science, in the arts — and build on top of it. If it’s not strong enough, your building’s not going to stand.”
Ma went on to describe the warm welcome he’d received during a recent community outreach visit to St. Sabina Church on Chicago’s violence-torn South Side. On June 10, he’ll return to the neighborhood to perform with students from the Kenwood Academy, and then on June 11 at St. Sabina, he will join musicians from the Civic Orchestra in what’s being billed as a Concert for Peace. Ahead of those events, Ma will work with students for a few days in Hyde Park.
On a related note, Ma also emphasized the importance of mentors, saying he was lucky to have had some extremely supportive ones. “My first teacher was incredibly loving,” he recalled of his earliest years in Paris, where he was born and spent his childhood. “She was a French teacher. She’s still alive and I still see her. I started on violin. I was hopeless.”
He couldn’t play the double bass, he said, joking, “because it was huge. We compromised on cello because it was my size. It’s not a very interesting story. I didn’t get sudden insight: Oh, this is what I’m going to do!”
When he was 7 years old, Ma and his family moved to New York. His teacher there “was a very kind man, and I needed kindness in my life because I was very confused and very unsure of myself,” he said. “Even though it seemed that I was excelling at various things, I didn’t particularly think so or know so.”
Forty-two years later, after countless hours of practice, innumerable lauded performances, a slew of awards (18 Grammys alone) and worldwide fame, he finally and fully acclimated to his vocation.
“What I was always interested in with music is who made it and why,” Ma said. “Which is my basic question about everything all the time. I see a beautiful building: Who made it and why? I see a beautiful dress: Who made it and why?”
Before leaving his chair again to participate in the night’s last two musical works, Handel’s “Laschia chi’io piangia” from Rinaldo and Scott Joplin’s Maple Leaf Rag, Ma answered a question about the role of culture in spurring dialogue during divisive times.
“When there’s a divide, it’s always interesting what someone else’s point of view is,” he said. “We say there’s an empathy deficit. There’s an empathy deficit on all sides. I play a lot in blue states and I play a lot in red states, and most of the time we have really pleasant conversations about life.”