World-renowned cellist Yo-Yo Ma ’76 filled the Institute of Politics with the sound of music yesterday during a discussion on the arts, which culminated in an interactive cello performance that received a standing ovation from the audience.
The discussion, entitled “Cultural Citizenship," was moderated by David Gergen, the co-director of the Kennedy School’s Center for Public Leadership, a co-sponsor of the event.
“We normally define a ‘good citizen’ as someone involved in political campaigns and so on, but you can also use the arts to be a good citizen—to engage people, to challenge the status quo,” said C. M. Trey Grayson '94, director of the IOP, in explaining the significance of the theme. “Yo-Yo Ma is a leader in this respect.”
Sharing his own understanding of “cultural citizenship,” Ma said, “For me, being a citizen is about looking at how I can be useful at a time when some people say the arts is an ‘elite’ thing. I'm a human first, a citizen second, a musician third, a cellist fourth."
Ma was born in France to Chinese parents, and moved to the U.S. at the age of seven.
“A multi-cultural background can be confusing, but it can also be enriching,” Ma said. “You can look at things from different perspectives, which gets you closer to clarity.”
Ma studied music at the College, even though he said his real passion was anthropology.
“To this day, I often say that there’s nothing I’ve done since college that didn’t start in some way in college,” Ma said. “I met some incredible teachers and friends who opened up my world. It was an education that began a life-long quest to understand things.”
During the question and answer session that followed the discussion, a member of the audience asked about Ma’s source of inspiration.
"It's very simple,” Ma said. “I love people."
The cellist, whose 75 albums have received 15 Grammy Awards, shared his insights on music-making and performance.
"When I perform I'm not the most important person in the room. The audience is the most important person in the room,” Ma said. “The bow is an extension of my lungs, and the four strings are an extension of my vocal cords."
When he took up his cello, Ma turned the audience into a choir by asking everyone to stand on their feet and participate in music-making through singing. This collaborative effort made the JFK forum ring with the harmonies of J.S. Bach’s cello suite.
“Yo-Yo Ma is someone I’m very inspired by, because he was able to change my perception of music from something boring into something fun, and this changed me,” said John Lee, an alumnus of the Kennedy School, who is now a musician.