Yo-Yo Ma’s big ideas

by Andrew Travers, Aspen Daily News Staff Writer

Over the first three days of the 2013 Aspen Ideas Festival, Yo-Yo Ma performed “America the Beautiful” with a double-amputee war veteran, he championed arts education to generals, CEOs and various masters of the universe, and he scored a brief impromptu ballet performance by hundreds of audience members in the Benedict Music Tent.

He even got Aspen Institute President and CEO Walter Isaacson to dance and movie executive Michael Eisner to sing.

Such are Ma’s duties as the Aspen Institute’s artist-in-residence.

Ma, 57, is the world’s best-known cellist, a winner of 16 Grammys and recipient of the Presidential Medal of Freedom. A charismatic presence on- and off-stage, he has long been chamber music’s ambassador to mainstream pop culture. In Aspen, Ma has preached changing arts programs in schools from “extra to essential” and demonstrated how music can transform lives and improve communities.

Ma’s vision of integrating the arts into society has tentacles that reach far into unexpected areas. Along with advocating more robust arts education, he championed the performing arts in health care, national service and veteran rehabilitation. He offered art as a solution to the American brain gap and rallied orchestra conductors from around the nation to become community leaders.

Technical proficiency and the ability to make beautiful music is a small part of what he does with his cello, according to Ma.

“Music is about much more than that,” he said Wednesday. “It’s about much bigger ideas.”

Arts and ideas

The artist-in-residence program was born nearly a decade ago, with the late Sidney Harman arguing at an Institute board meeting that the organization had stripped the arts out of its work.

“Aspen no longer seemed to care about the arts,” his wife, former U.S. Rep. Jane Harman recalled this week. “He made the point that when Aspen was founded the arts was a central driving force. And where had it gone? And he wasn’t only talking about a separate arts program, but arts infusing all of the programs at Aspen.”

Harman soon got Eisner, his fellow Institute trustee and former Walt Disney Co. CEO, on board to fund a residency program.

Founded in 2006, it has hosted luminaries like director Julie Taymor and author Tobias Wolff, in an effort to bring an artist’s perspective to the Institute’s policy work and public programs, and vice versa. The post lasts one year, and brings the artist to Ideas Fest, as well as Institute events in New York, Washington, D.C. and elsewhere.

Ma, whose work with the Silk Road Project has focused on cultural exchange and arts integration since 1998, has proved to be an ideal and proactive artist-in-residence.

“How we ever top this, I don’t know,” said Eisner.

Damian Woetzel, the Institute’s arts programs director and former principal dancer at the New York City Ballet, served as artist-in-residence in 2008. He and other Institute resident artists have continued their work as “citizen artists” after their residencies ended — a point he stressed when he offered the post to Ma.

“I asked Yo-Yo to be the 2013 artist-in-residence and I quickly rescinded that and said, ‘It goes on forever,’” Woetzel recalled.


Yo-Yo Ma first played with Lance Cpl. Timothy Donley last year, when the Marine was a patient at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center. Donley lost both of his legs above the knee in an improvised explosive device attack in Afghanistan.

Donley, 21, joined Ma on stage at Paepcke Auditorium Friday morning, performing a song Donley wrote while working with Musicorps, a music program for wounded veterans.

Musicorps offers intensive musical training to injured vets and has spawned prosthetics that have allowed the legless to play drums, and amputees to play guitar. Donley has excelled at singing and songwriting. He said his training with Musicorps has tangibly aided his recovery.

“It gives you the ability to look at the future with a little bit of hope,” he said. “[Music] gives you energy and drive to keep going through your life. It makes you a better person in general.”

Ma is among Musicorps’ stable of musicians and teachers. He compared the first time he played at Walter Reed to the first time he played Carnegie Hall — saying both induced anxiety but elevated his work as a musician.

Ma and Donley were joined in a panel discussion by Musicorps founder Arthur Bloom and Camille Zamora of Sing For Hope, a nonprofit focused on bringing professional musicians to perform at hospitals. It’s also the group installing public pianos around New York City.

“It’s a new field that’s emerging,” Bloom said, “where the musicians, the artists, can do this kind of public service. It’s very edifying and its very interesting. It’s very gratifying.”

For artists, such service isn’t entirely altruistic. Ma and Zamora agreed that getting out of rarefied concert halls and performing in hospitals and schools, while helping others, also informs and improves their skill and passion on stage.

“I feel some of my best collaborators have been my collaborators at hospital bedsides and in schools,” said Zamora.

Ma sees organizations like Musicorps and Sing For Hope as part of a growth industry that can use the arts to produce tangible societal benefits.

“All of this is going in a certain direction,” he said.

They closed their panel with a rendition of “America the Beautiful,” with Ma on cello, Bloom on piano and Donley singing. By song’s end, the audience passionately joined in.

 Chris Council/Aspen Daily News
Timothy Donley, a Lance Cpl. in the Marine Corps, sings at Paepcke Auditorium on Friday morning as part of a discussion titled “Arts, Veterans and Health Care” during the Aspen Ideas Festival. Donley is accompanied by Arthur Bloom on the piano and cellist Yo-Yo Ma.

“I’m a 21-year-old kid on stage with Yo-Yo Ma, right?” Donley laughed. “How much better does it get?”


Over the course of several public panels at Ideas Fest, Ma touched on the movement in American education policy toward the “STEM” fields of science, technology, education and mathematics. He’s added the letter “A” for art, and advocated for “STEAM” education.

The types of critical thinking that the arts instill may not be testable, the way math is, but they are critical, he argued.

“So many people are saying, ‘What we need in our 21st century workforce are people who have incredible collaborative skills, who have incredible flexible ways of thinking, great imagination and who can be innovative,’” he said. “‘If we had a whole population of citizens who could do those things, we’re not going to have an economic crisis.’ So what I’m thinking is, ‘Gee, that’s very odd. Because those very skills of collaboration and flexible thinking and imagination and innovative thinking, [are] exactly what the performing arts teach us.’”

In recent years, Woetzel and Ma have barnstormed communities as evangelists for this idea, in what Woetzel has deemed an “artstrike.” The concept brings artists out of their normal settings, usually while they’re on tour, for a quick “strike” in a school, hospital or any place that they can make an impact.

Friday afternoon in the Benedict Music Tent, Ma and Woetzel demonstrated an artstrike with students from Basalt Middle School and actress Anna Deveare Smith, who was the Institute’s artist-in-residence in 2006.

The students performed a spoken word piece called “What Makes Me Unique?” with Ma on cello and Christina Pato on piano. After the performance, Smith critiqued the kids and helped improve the elocution of their performance, while Woetzel gave instruction about hand movements to accentuate the performance.

“A lot of times we think art is about congratulations,” Smith explained afterward. “[But] we rehearse things for the opportunity to correct. And exactly that area, of correction, is where education begins.”

Artstrikers were joined by Charles “Lil Buck” Riley, a Memphis-based dancer who demonstrated his Gumby-like dexterity in his piece, “The Swan.” He, Woetzel and Ma have taken their interactive artstrike act into schools from  Los Angeles to Beijing to Lame Deer, Mont.

Another group of grade schoolers performed an interpretive dance they composed from a science lesson — the result of an artstrike from the nonprofit Celebrate the Beat — with Ma playing an Earth, Wind and Fire song beside them.

Woetzel and Ma also gave the crowd a taste of the student experience in an artstrike. Woetzel taught the crowd the opening movements to George Balanchine’s ballet “Serenade,” then had them perform the dance while Ma played Tchaikovsky. The crowd — Isaacson among them — followed along.

“We’re making a common cause by participating,” Woetzel explained. “The kids take it to another place because they use it as a learning tool.”

Ma added that making art is essential for people beyond school age. He noted that when people are 2 years old, they nag their parents by incessantly asking “why?” But, he noted, they stop once they reach adulthood. Art, he said, is the thing that keeps asking “why?”

“I think art and music and poetry actually continues to ask that question as it’s reaching out to find the answers,” he said.


When he agreed to be the Institute’s artist for 2013, Ma said he wanted to convene a group of conductors and music directors at Ideas Fest. Seven prominent conductors joined Ma and Woetzel for two days of private discussion before the festival, focusing on how they could impact their communities and use a symphony as an agent of social change.

“My question was, they are incredibly creative people, they are great organizers, they are producers — what would happen if they all came together?” he said Wednesday.

The consensus among them was that being excellent performers and leading world-class symphonies isn’t enough anymore.

“We’re no longer performing in institutions,” David Alan Miller, of the Albany Symphony Orchestra, said Wednesday in a panel featuring Ma, Woetzel and the seven visiting conductors. “We’re becoming these complete community resources.”

They discussed projects ranging from urban development to historical preservation and public education, where they’ve reached out into their communities. Robert Spano, musical director of the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra and the Aspen Music Festival and School, described a movement in recent years among accomplished conductors, and in the instruction of young musicians, toward more aggressive and thoughtful community outreach.

“It’s rather exciting to see this shift in attitude,” Spano said.

The shift benefits both the host community and classical musicians, whose core audiences have dwindled.

“I feel like I’ve become a better music director based on these three days,” said Alastair Willis, director of the Illinois Symphony.

The conductor convocation took a serendipitous turn the night before Ideas Fest began, as retired Gen. Stanley McChrystal arrived on campus to launch the Institute’s new Franklin Project. Franklin is aimed at creating a civilian national service counterpart to the military, with the goal of enlisting more than 1 million young Americans annually into yearlong volunteer opportunities like Americorps, Teach for America and the Peace Corps.

Ma lobbied McChrystal to include arts and culture organizations in the developing program.

“We crashed the Franklin Project,” he laughed.