Yo-Yo Ma: Creative Consultant at Work

Classic Arts Features   Yo-Yo Ma: Creative Consultant at Work
Renowned cellist Yo-Yo Ma serves as the Chicago Symphony Orchestra's Creative Consultant. Ma talks about his appointment and about the power of music.


In this role, Ma actively participates in the CSO's Symphony Center Presents Chamber Music Series, not simply by performing, but also by asking our institution to embrace and celebrate an intersection of the ideas of musicianship and citizenship.

With the remarkable life and career of Felix Mendelssohn as an inspiration, Ma coined the term "citizen musician" to describe the role played by many musicians in our world. His vision involves exploring how a citizen musician can uplift his or her community, as Ma feels that many of the values musicians are taught also apply to citizenship. "We are taught to work toward something bigger than ourselves; to be simultaneously attentive to the biggest possible picture and the smallest detail; that our participation is not meaningful unless the content is received and takes life in someone else; to be in service to others: in the case of musicians, to the composer and to the audience. A musician's currency is the ability to put into form a celebration of the imagination." Ma cites the following Pablo Casals quote as a touchstone: "I am a human being first, a musician second, and a cellist third."

Program annotator Phillip Huscher talks with Ma about his appointment and about the power of music.

PH: What did Riccardo Muti say to you to persuade you to take on this new role with the Chicago Symphony?

YM: Actually, I asked him what mattered most to him, aside from music and his family. And he said I care about the environment, and I care about children, and I care about the less fortunate people in society, like people in prison. And he said, at my age I don't feel I have to prove that I'm a good musician, and these are issues that I can really address. I've never heard a music director say that in this way. Idealistically, any young music student does think about these things, and then so often regular life interferes: getting a job, providing for a family. The fact that Maestro Muti has never forgotten those ideals, and that he chooses to act on them, is really remarkable. So I thought, wow, I want to be on that team! Of course, I have very fond memories of working with him over the decades. I've always thought that he was someone who had a very strong vision, and I also knew that he was a person of tremendous integrity.

And so what an incredible joy and privilege it is to be part of this working group, talking about things like "citizen musicians" or about what music means to people in society. And there's no better place to do it than in Chicago.

One of the things that I've always been taught is that you, as a musician, are always working toward a goal that's larger than yourself, and I think the good musicians are practicing that all the time. So whether you're addressing the planet or you're addressing a piece of music, it's like: Where do you place yourself in that piece of music? Are you a central actor in it, and where do you place yourself in the larger universe? Are you the most important person in the universe? Where do you stand? Where do you fit in? Those questions are part of being a musician. You ask those questions.

Music is one of the things that creates community. And it also creates memories: it actually creates all the shades between black and white, and I think part of interpreting the world is actually to understand all the different shadings of the infinite variety of life that can exist between black and white.

You have a long history of playing with this orchestra, but what is it about the city that enticed you?

I've always loved Chicago: the people and the community. But when we did the Silk Road Chicago project, I really got to know the city and its people in a much deeper way, whether it was within the symphony or the many communities that I was able to visit during that yearlong program. So it was the experience of the city and its institutions, and also a deep admiration for the incredibly strong collaborative team that Deborah Rutter has built over the years. And within the Orchestra, the musicians are great colleagues and some are really great friends.

Why did this seem like the right time in your wide-ranging career to take on the role of a creative consultant?

Because of my interest in education and culture, and thinking that culture and education are actually the same thing. The two are constantly in the same orbit, and part of creativity means keeping your learning curve as high as possible, and part of teaching is learning.

Riccardo Muti talks about how, as the various cultures of the world are coming closer together, a new musical language will eventually emerge. Do you agree?

Absolutely. I think that's always happened, and I think it continues to happen. The genesis of any music is that it's created and then if it's really good, other people want the same thing. It becomes a tradition: so every tradition is actually a successful invention. And it's constantly being invented because sound travels light: people carry it in their heads.

Do you believe that music has the power to get through to everyone?

I think that the power of music and the power of all the arts is to stir the imagination. In terms of people who are down and out, what gets people through really hard times is hope. We can't buy hope. It is a by-product, like love, of what people do with their imaginations. And I think a vibrant imagination and flexible thinking are two of the key ingredients that will be essential in the future of our nation.

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