Yo-Yo Ma plays his cello at the annual meeting of the World Economic Forum in 2008.
Yo-Yo Ma is revered for the rich tones he coaxes from his 1733 cello. Born in Paris in 1955, he first performed at age 5, went on to study at Juilliard, and eventually mastered the classical repertory.
He and his Silk Road Ensemble sound more exotic notes on April 6 at Cal Performances (calperformances.org) in Berkeley, Calif.; April 7 at Davies Symphony Hall (performances.org) in San Francisco; and April 8 at the Mondavi Center (mondaviarts.org) in Davis, Calif.
Q Can you define the Silk Road Ensemble?
A We’re a collective of composers and musicians from countries all along the Silk Road, the ancient trade route that stretched from Asia to Europe.
Q How did you settle on that theme?
A The Silk Road connected the world through the transmission of not just goods but also ideas, art, and music. That’s what the ensemble tries to do—connect cultures of the world through music that shows how we’re related.
Q What does the group sound like?
A We perform original works from different traditions and feature instruments from the Chinese pipa [lute] and Galician bagpipe to Western strings. One work blends old Sardinian, Mexican, and Christian Arab music. Another was composed by a virtuoso Indian tabla [hand drum] player who doesn’t read music.
Q Listeners’ reward?
A I hope all of us—performers and audience alike—leave having felt the joy onstage. Beyond that, I hope audiences get a wonderful sense that there’s an infinite variety of ways to express humanity.
Q The Silk Road Ensemble’s musicians come from how many different nations?
A Since the ensemble was founded in 2000, maybe two dozen, if you count Texas and Brooklyn as separate countries. And in my experience, many of their residents do.
Q And the diversity of the music?
A Over the years, we’ve experimented with virtually every musical form in the world. I think of us as a collaborative, working lab of world music.
Q How important is music?
A Some people dismiss music as unessential, but I would simply point out that there is no culture in the world without it.
Q Can music change the world?
A At times, yes, for the better. I think of protest songs of the '60s, of Bob Dylan, Pete Seeger, and Joan Baez. I think of the statue of Frank Zappa erected in Vilnius because his music represented freedom to Lithuanians during the Soviet era. Music is one of the forces that make up human life, and Plato was rightly suspicious of it as something that can seep surreptitiously into people’s subconscious and affect their behavior.
Photography courtesy of World Economic Forum/Andy Mettler
This article was first published in March 2011. Some facts may have aged gracelessly. Please call ahead to verify information.