World-renowned cellist Yo-Yo Ma makes music to heal people and the world

World-renowned cellist Yo-Yo Ma, who is heading here for two performances, believes in the social impact of music, and not just art for art's sake

Imagine the world's best-known cellist, Yo-Yo Ma, sitting in his car fiddling with the radio controls.

"I would go through many, many stations just because I'm curious to see what people are listening to. My guilty pleasure is to just let people roll," he says in a phone call from the United States.

Ma, who turned 61 last month, is interested in all kinds of music. Jazz, bluegrass, rock or Western classical compositions - all are part of a continuum he expresses with colleagues in the 16-year-old Silk Road Ensemble.

The result has been well-received and eclectic programmes such as this week's concerts at the Esplanade Concert Hall with the Singapore Symphony Orchestra.

I've always asked myself, 'I love music, but what is it for?' We're not doing it because it pleases me, though that's part of it. Music heals people and it brings people to a biological state of equilibrium that allows people to function.

CELLIST YO-YO MA, who believes music is meant to have social impact

  • BOOK IT / SSO GALA: YO-YO MA & THE SILK ROAD ENSEMBLE

  • WHERE: Esplanade Concert Hall, 1 Esplanade Drive

    WHEN: Friday and Saturday, 7.30pm

    ADMISSION: $58 to $388 from Sistic (call 6348-5555 or go to www.sistic.com.sg). Limited seats, selling fast.

Members of the Silk Road Ensemble, including returning pipa player Wu Man, played here in September for the Singapore International Festival of Arts. That show was meant to trace the origins of the pipa.

The two performances this week embrace wider themes.

Friday's programme features Iranian-American composer Kayhan Kalhor's The Silent City, an elegy for a Kurdish village destroyed by Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein. Kalhor is Kurdish.

Also programmed is the Elgar Cello Concerto. The elegiac work is key to a cellist's repertoire, but is also included to show how Western classical music fits into a greater continuum of world music.

Mr Nice Guy is surprisingly humble

"All music aspires to the condition of being very specific to the moment, but also universality," says Ma. "Elgar wrote this piece at the end of World War I when England lost its finest generation of young men who went to war. It was the end of an empire and for Elgar, personally."

The concerto was written towards the end of the British composer's career, as his works were less anticipated by concertgoers.

Unlike Elgar, Ma remains one of the world's most celebrated and sought-after musicians, five decades after he began playing in public.

His schedule barely gives his cello - he plays either a 1733 Montagnana cello from Venice or a 1712 Davidoff Stradivarius - time to cool. Concerts in Seoul, Montreal and New York will follow Singapore's.

  • Silk Road beginnings

  • The Silk Road Ensemble includes close to 60 performers and composers from more than 20 countries. It is a musical version of the historic Silk Road, namely a place where different cultural traditions can interact and create a new kind of music.

    The concerts in Singapore on Friday and Saturday feature the works and talents of ensemble members such as Iranian-American composer Kayhan Kalhor; Italian cellist and composer Giovanni Sollima; and Chinese instrumentalists Wu Tong (vocalist and sheng player) and Wu Man (a noted pipa exponent who played here in September as part of the Singapore International Festival of Arts).

    The Silk Road Ensemble was founded in 2000 by Yo-Yo Ma. It arose from the cellist's non-profit Silkroad, founded in 1998 to create "meaningful change at the intersections of the arts, education and business".

    Silkroad organises professional development courses for teachers every summer with the Harvard Graduate School of Education.

    Members of the ensemble also conduct workshops in schools and universities to model learning through the arts.

    According to its website, the ensemble has commissioned 80 new musical works from composers and arrangers from 22 territories, including China, Azerbaijan, Argentina, Japan, India, Lebanon, Mongolia, Tajikistan, Turkey, Iran, Uzbekistan, Armenia and the United States.

    It has recorded six albums, including Sing Me Home, which was released in April.

    A documentary on Ma and members of the Silk Road Ensemble was released in June and will soon be available via Netflix, the cellist says.

    The Music Of Strangers: Yo-Yo Ma And The Silk Road Ensemble was directed by Academy Award-winner Morgan Neville (20 Feet From Stardom, 2013). Reviewers have praised the film for the sound as well as the musicians' meditations on cultural identity.

He is so well-known that people forget the reasons for his fame. Could it be his 18 Grammy Awards for either solo or ensemble albums, many bafflingly out of the box?

His first Grammy was for a 1986 recording of Brahms' Cello and Piano Sonatas in E Minor and F.

In 2013, he received one for Best Folk Album with the bluegrassflavoured album, The Goat Rodeo Sessions, recorded with bassist Edgar Meyer, mandolin player Chris Thile and multi-instrumentalist Stuart Duncan.

Could it be his nice-guy personality? He cracks jokes backstage and sees concerts as "this big party we've invited the audience to". "You can't welcome people with a frown," he says.

Even those outside the concert- going circle might remember his appearances on children's television shows, Mister Rogers' Neighbourhood and Sesame Street, in the 1980s.

His polite, sunny manner perfectly matched those of Mr Rogers and Elmo. He himself had two young children then - a son and a daughter, now grown - with his wife, arts consultant Jill Hornor, who is one of the directors of the Silk Road Ensemble.

Ma's charm shines during a 30-minute phone call, a third of which he spends apologising for the 3.30am Singapore time slot.

He is astonishingly humble and admits to practising every day "to locate that state of mind necessary for music to exist".

"Part of homeostasis for a musician is to try and make sure that you have enough technique to transcend it and focus on the sound and content," he says, using the biological term for a state of equilibrium.

"There's the athleticism part of music-making which is neuromuscular control," he adds.

"An athlete also has to warm up and go through training to do a specific task."

Born in Paris, Ma grew up in the US because his parents moved there when he was seven years old.

His mother was a singer and his father a musicologist who failed to pique Ma's interest in the violin or piano.

Bigger instruments such as the double bass caught his eye - he has famously said the smaller cello was a compromise.

He started performing at age five and gave concerts before Dwight Eisenhower and John F. Kennedy - two of eight American presidents he has performed for.

Before he turned 10, he performed on television with his older sister, who plays the violin and is also a medical doctor.

Ma studied at Juilliard and graduated from Harvard, where his studies included archaeology and anthropology. He believes in the intersection of science and the arts - or rather, that philosophy, arts, sciences and the humanities are all necessary to help make sense of life.

For him, music is meant to have social impact.

"Having started music at a very young age, I've always asked myself, 'I love music, but what is it for?'

"We're not doing it because it pleases me, though that's part of it. Music heals people and it brings people to a biological state of equilibrium that allows people to function."

Hence the Silk Road Ensemble works with students at Harvard and trains teachers, including those from inner-city American schools where the first concern is to create a safe environment to help a child develop.

Ma himself is a United Nations Messenger of Peace and a member of the American President's Committee on the Arts & the Humanities.

He likes Singapore's peacefully multicultural environment, praising it for "focusing on constructive values".

He has played here several times. In 1993, he had a sold-out show at Victoria Concert Hall with British classical pianist Kathryn Stott.

He made his Singapore Symphony Orchestra debut under founder Choo Hoey's baton in 1995 and under current music director Shui Lan four years later, when he premiered Bright Sheng's Spring Dreams and also played the Elgar Cello Concerto.

He was a featured guest during the orchestra's 2005 tour of the US. He brought the Silk Road Ensemble to the Esplanade Concert Hall in 2010 as part of its 10th anniversary tour.

He says music and a multicultural group such as the Silk Road Ensemble can make a difference in times of increasing change and rising xenophobia.

"The world is changing at an alarming rate and that makes people afraid. Fear is the enemy of society, so we ask the question, 'What would be the antidote here? Is it trust, is it community, is it joy? What would be the most appropriate way to push back the darkness?'"

Art for art's sake is a relatively new idea, he says.

"Throughout classical music history, people wrote because a patron asked for music, or they wrote for the church or the community, to bring people together. Music is for life's sake."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 08, 2016, with the headline 'Music to heal people and the world'. Print Edition | Subscribe