I imagine that having a conversation with Yo-Yo Ma offers a slight glimpse of what a pleasure it must be to make music with the man. After speaking with him by phone last week, I found that his warmth, good humor, and infectious enthusiasm for life lingered after we hanged up and sent me into the rest of my day with a lighter spirit and a renewed sense of purpose. Ma turned 60 in October, and he has been active as a performer since 1961. When he hits the Granada stage on Sunday, February 21, at 7 p.m. for the first of a two-night stand there with the Silk Road Ensemble, the audience will get an earful of what it means to be a truly global 21st-century musician, and a good look at what it is to experience fulfillment as a human being. Through his concerts, his lectures, and the projects he organizes, Ma promotes the concept of cultural citizenship. Through his extraordinary presence, Ma embodies that ideal.
As has been the case from the beginning with the Silk Road Project, the goal of these two concerts is to perform new compositions that cross musical borders in a context that reveals what’s exciting and personal about them. On Sunday night, listeners will hear “Mille Etoiles,” a new composition by Glenn Kotche, an outstanding American composer who also happens to be the drummer in Wilco. Monday’s eclectic program includes “King Ashoka” by Sandeep Das, who will be onstage to perform it, as he is the regular tabla player in the Silk Road Ensemble.
Fans of the string quartet Brooklyn Rider and the chamber orchestra The Knights will be pleased to hear that violinist Jonathan Gandelsman and violist Nicholas Cords can also be expected. In fact, it was out of their experience as founding members of the Silk Road Ensemble that these musicians, along with Colin and Eric Jacobsen, formed those groups. When asked about this, Ma told me that he feels lucky to be “combining not only the skills but the two realities of the different generations” of musicians who come together whenever the Silk Road Ensemble plays. Expanding on this observation, and on the idea that these younger players have succeeded in redefining what it means to have a career in classical music, Ma observed that “as we experience our cultural institutions and how they continue to change, there are moments when we must renew our commitments and ask the fundamental questions all over again — Why educate ourselves? Why make music? For me, it comes down to three words that represent my core values — trust, truth, and meaning. These are the things that guide me when change comes and when I have to make decisions about what to let go of and what to keep.”
Fortunately for us in Santa Barbara, his long-standing relationship with UCSB Arts & Lectures is one of the things Yo-Yo Ma wants to keep. This is the only stop on the current Silk Road Ensemble tour at which he will appear, and he offers high praise to the organization and to the university, saying “what a treasure Celesta [Billeci, director of Arts & Lectures] is to this community, and what a wonderful place UCSB is, from Chancellor Yang on down.”
The Silk Road Ensemble plays at the Granada Theatre (1214 State St.) on Sunday, February 21, at 7 p.m. and Monday, February 22, at 8 p.m. Tickets are available at artsandlectures.sa.ucsb.edu and by calling (805) 893-3535.