Why Is Yo-Yo Ma Devoting So Much Time To Outreach In Chicago?
Jun 27, 2017
Cellist Yo-Yo Ma with members of the Civic Orchestra of Chicago at the Concert for Peace at St. Sabina Church.
Why does the celebrated cellist devote his time and talent to making our city a better place? For Ma, it’s not about the music —— or any art, really. "It’s about people."
He bounds onto the stage with the grace of an athlete and the verve of a motivational speaker. The audience stands, cheering, before the first note sounds. Even if they've never heard him play, they've heard of Yo-Yo Ma. The legendary cellist is headlining the Concert for Peace, a fundraiser for highly at-risk youth, at St. Sabina in Auburn Gresham.
It's Ma's third visit here in four months. The concert is his latest effort to help make Chicago a better educated, less violent city. For seven years, as the Judson & Joyce Green creative consultant at Chicago Symphony Orchestra, Ma has traveled to the city five times a year, collaborating and performing with musicians from the CSO and Civic Orchestra of Chicago, and with students at music schools.
Plenty of big cities need what he offers: a celebrity name, drive, energy and desire to make the world a better place. So why Chicago?
"I love the city," he says during an interview before the St. Sabina concert, presented by the church, Ma and the Negaunee Music Institute at Chicago Symphony Orchestra. "There's a lot of depth, a lot of pride in the way the city operates, and the institutions here are fabulous." Ma says the late Lois Weisberg, former city commissioner of cultural affairs, once pointed out that 100 million people are within 500 miles of Chicago. "I am particularly interested in this third of the country because I think that third has a deep soul, and the soul of the country in many ways stems from what happens here," he says.
It's a thoughtful answer from a musician who studied anthropology at Harvard University. The more immediate answer: citizens being injured or killed by gun violence. "We lost Xavier Joy (a 23-year-old shot in Woodlawn) just a few days ago, and our driver, Chet, told us another person was shot on the Riverwalk last night," says Ma, who counts Chicago nonprofit executive Ra Joy, Xavier's father, as a friend. "I try to say, 'How can I help?' " Ma, 61, takes Chicago's reputation as seriously as if he were born and raised here. "I care about how people talk about Chicago in other cities, countries, states," he says. "We don't want people to think of Chicago as a place that's dangerous."