by H. Naomi March, M.A.
Yo-Yo Ma by Jason Bell
Cross-cultural connections through The Bach Project
Do you feel any kind of connection with Yo-Yo Ma – maybe through music, or his generation, or performing in Christchurch Town Hall, or promoting our humanity through culture? You may have more in common than you first realized. What difference does it make?
Connection with a Stranger
Yo-Yo Ma turned 64-years-old last month, just days before a close family member and a close friend of mine. Funny how it’s the little things that sometimes connect us to someone we have never met, but who means a lot to us. Born in Paris to Chinese parents, Ma began learning the cello with his father, when only four years old. At age seven he moved to America, with his parents, and older sister. He continued his cello studies at New York’s world-famous conservatory – the Julliard School – with Leonard Rose, and then continued his liberal arts education at Columbia and Harvard Universities, graduating with a degree in anthropology.
At seven, I began learning piano, and practiced with my Grandmother here in Christchurch – she made sure I could attend lessons, and her tutoring made a difference.
18 months younger than me, Yo-Yo Ma is my contemporary – part of the Baby Boomers generation – but there is no way I am his peer, i.e., equal. I don’t even breathe the same rarified air as this hero among us – this great humanitarian and gifted musician.
Connection through the Christchurch Town Hall
Do you have any special memories of concerts you attended in the Christchurch Town Hall over the decades, pre-earthquake? Perhaps you performed there as a musician or vocalist. In my late-teens, I sang with the Royal Christchurch Musical Society – as part of the combined choir that performed with the Brass Band at the opening ceremony. The newly restored iconic interior evokes so many fun-filled memories with friends, especially in the mid-late 1970s.
Christchurch Town Hall Interior – with its iconic 1972 décor preserved
Now, nine months after its reopening, Yo-Yo Ma will perform his New Zealand debut in the Christchurch Town Hall, one of 36 iconic venues chosen world-wide, during his 2018-2019 Bach Project tour. It’s pleasing to know that a world-class musician agrees with us – our Town Hall is iconic, on a global scale – another connection.
On Tuesday night, November 12, 2019, Yo-Yo Ma will make his cello sing, enhanced by the incredible acoustics of our Town Hall. We will remember this world-class concert for decades to come.
Connection through Bach’s Music
The purpose of the Bach Project for Ma, is to perform J.S. Bach’s six suites for solo cello without an interval – a physical feat of over two hours – and then take action in the community, the next day. He connects with people in each of those 36 audiences through Bach’s 300-year-old music, because it speaks a cross-cultural language – a language of its own.
Unlike Ma – who found his giftedness early, and focused on it, and perfected it – I have been a “Jill-of-all-trades….”’ During my years teaching piano and theory of music, I taught Bach to beginners. I played a Bach Prelude and Fugue for my teachers’ diploma exam with Trinity College, London – having practiced for many hours with a metronome, to keep the strict time of the Baroque period. Even though I love Bach’s music – especially because he wrote it “for the glory of God” – my brain and body and emotions prefer the freedom to give-and-take, or ‘rob’ the timing of Beethoven’s Romantic period music. The examiner reported that I played the Sonata well, and John Ireland’s Soliloquy even better. On reflection, I was able to express what I had no words for – the loss of my only baby – through playing that music. Music gives us power – the power to express deep emotions such as anger, frustration, grief, love and joy.
When I listen to Yo-Yo Ma’s CD recordings of J.S. Bach’s Six Suites for Unaccompanied Cello, his performance connects with my heart, mind and emotions, and I find it comforting, and uplifting, and empowering for my brain when I study. Bach’s music carries so much emotion and strength, and I have always loved the sound of the deep, rich tone of the cello’s voice. Yes, learning to play cello is a desire of my heart – but it’s been on my ‘Bucket List’ for too many years now, and I suspect I will ‘kick the bucket’ before fulfilling this goal – hence my deep appreciation for Yo-Yo Ma’s recordings of Bach.
Connection through Culture
Yo-Yo Ma has performed on the cello for very significant and deeply moving national and international cultural events, including the 56th Inaugural Ceremony – by invitation from President Obama; Memorial for 9/11; the Boston Marathon bombing memorial service; under Paris’ l’arc de Triomphe for the 100th Anniversary of the end of World War One. Yet he also plays privately, for friends’ weddings, and sadly sometimes, their funerals.
Most amateur musicians have also played classical and modern music for weddings, funerals, church services, and even as background music for quality restaurants, as I have. This realization makes another connection for me – regardless of our ability, we, too, can reach out to support others at special times, with music – either CDs or live performances.
Other cultural connections Ma makes, include performing movie soundtracks, e.g. Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon – which won an Oscar, BAFTA and Golden Globe for its composer’s original screen score, among multiple other awards, including three more Oscars. Most of us have some concept of the skills required to win these news-worthy accolades.
“The Bach Project continues Yo-Yo’s lifelong commitment to stretching the boundaries of genre and tradition to explore music as a means not only to share and express meaning, but also as his contribution to a conversation about how culture can help us to imagine and build a stronger society and a better future. It was this belief that inspired Yo-Yo to establish Silkroad, a collective of artists from around the world who create music that engages their many traditions.” (opus3artists.com/artists/yo-yo-ma)
“Silkroad’s music is contemporary and ancient, familiar and foreign, traditional and innovative, drawing on styles from around the world to create a new musical language that reflects 21st-century society. When we create music together, we listen to our differences, connecting and creating meaning from them.” (Silkroad.org)
“Yo-Yo Ma’s multi-faceted career is testament to his enduring belief in culture’s power to generate trust and understanding. Whether performing new or familiar works from the cello repertoire, collaborating with communities and institutions to explore culture’s role in society, or engaging unexpected musical forms, Mr. Ma strives to foster connections that stimulate the imagination and reinforce our humanity.” (#CultureConnectsUs)
Yo-Yo Ma by Jason Bell
Connection with a Human Hero
While superheroes are fun – they always win – we can’t copy their super-human-feats. But a human hero reflects who we want to be, by successfully behaving in ways we strive to attain. Therefore it’s important to find a connection somehow – through our shared humanity, our similar experiences, goals, circumstances, cultures, likes or dislikes – with our human heroes, because they show us we can be heroes, too.
Ma also serves the world outside his musical giftedness through a number of global positions, such as being a member of the board of trustees of the World Economic Forum – the first artist to be appointed – and UN Messenger of Peace.
Yo-Yo Ma and his wife of 41 years, Jill Hornor, have two children, Producer, Director and Writer, Nicholas Ma and New York legal firm associate, Emily Hornor Ma, who married fellow Harvard graduate, John Mistovich in 2014. Although some of us – myself included – have not been as successful as this family appear to have been, we can still relate to them.
My monthly column about our connectedness as one race – human – through Palmary magazine’s conversation about our similarities and differences in Western and Chinese culture – is my local contribution. While I’m only just finding my voice with ink on paper in our small corner of the world, I don’t feel humiliated by my small contribution – rather – I am encouraged because of Mr. Ma’s work, and how he uses his abilities and opportunities to promote something that connects us – our respect for humanity, and a deep desire to understand and be understood.
As he has traveled the world, Yo-Yo Ma has taken massive action – the other focus of The Bach Project. Musically, in each of his 36 concert performances, he performs 6 Suites, with a total of 36 Movements – without an interval – all on 6 Continents (and NZ). Hero enough, in the world of music appreciation! But then his humanity shines through in practical ways by following each concert with a Day of Action. The Bach Project website lists its global partnerships, and names its two Christchurch partners: rekindle.org.nz – “Rekindle creates opportunities for resourcefulness. Resourcefulness is creating what we need from what is around & within us, for the wellbeing of planet & people. Rekindle shares opportunities for resourcefulness by promoting the skills & knowledge involved in creating what we need from what we have. We transform local resources through care & craft; this being the opposite of wastefulness” and teputahi.org.nz – “Te Pūtahi – Christchurch Centre for Architecture and City-Making – makes it desirable and fun for everybody to participate in the shaping and enjoyment of Otautahi Christchurch.”
At the time of writing, Yo-Yo Ma has not yet arrived in Christchurch, so I will draw attention to his Day of Action at the Mexican Border, by way of example. On Saturday, 13 April, 2019, Ma brought The Bach Project to sister cities Nuevo Laredo, Mexico, and Laredo, Texas. His words were as powerful as his music, and Texas Public Radio videoed what he said, and posted it on YouTube (see Research List below). Firstly, he played Bach, and then he read from a plaque at New York’s Statue of Liberty:
“Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”
He continued, “We must live by those words. I’ve lived my life at the borders. Between cultures, between disciplines, between musics, between generations.” Ma also said, “A country is not a hotel and it’s not full. In culture we build bridges, not walls,” and the crowd cheered in agreement. When young people were interviewed on camera afterwards, they quoted him, almost verbatim – they are the generation that will continue Ma’s work, and were clearly compassionate and committed, as they shared their feelings and thoughts.
There’s something about a hero who is also a humanitarian – like Yo-Yo Ma – who encourages us to do what we can, where we are, when we can, however we can, by calling us to action, and living out his convictions in his own sphere, as our example.
Did you find some connections with him, too? Did something come to mind in a way that inspires you to continue on your path to connect with humanity in cultural ways? What action are you able to take to form connections in your family, community, our City, nation and even the world, if possible?
We DO need another hero – human, like us – but uniquely gifted. Yo-Yo Ma cares enough to show us how to build connections – through similarities and differences in our human experiences – through our giftedness and strengths, through culture, through music, through language, through food, through compassion, through forgiveness, through our humanity. We can create cross-cultural peace and prosperity by our actions, and share the inspiration of music.
Cellist Yo-Yo Ma Plays Bach In Shadow Of Border Crossing -youtube.com/watch?time_continue=24&v=DtC55rfJQYY opus3artists.com/artists/yo-yo-ma
Silkroad |Bird Ascending – youtube.com/watch?v=gs7IDSCqYyQ
About the Author
Naomi March, M.A. has a Master of Arts degree in Pastoral Leadership (2016), with special emphasis on pastoral care to women.
Naomi has traveled throughout many countries, and lived and worked in China in the mid-1990s, returning for a visit in 2018. Naomi still delights in finding diversity in people and their places, music and culture.
As an Adult Educator, Naomi is currently writing her series of seminars into book-workbook formats – specializing in “growing up, not growing old,” including health and financial issues in the senior years.