President's Speech - Yo-Yo Ma

‚ÄčPresident Waterbury:

Yo-Yo Ma began to establish the reputation for which we are honoring him today at the ripe age of four, in Paris, when he first began to play the cello. Adding another year to his life, he first appeared in public, again in Paris, playing piano and cello. I assume he did not play them simultaneously, but with Yo-Yo Ma one can't be sure.

He comes from a family of musicians, and his children, Nicholas and Emily continue the family tradition. Yo-Yo Ma is generally considered to be the world's greatest living cellist. That has not been for lack of company. Indeed, as Isaac Stern noted, the repertoire for cello was rather limited in the twentieth century. Between Yo-Yo and Rastropovich, Stern observed, the amount of new music written for the cello in the twentieth century surpasses all the music written for cello in the past four centuries. Ma's genius as a cellist is paralleled by what many call his athleticism. Some have called Yo-Yo Ma the Tiger Woods of the cello; others have called Michael Jordan the Yo-Yo Ma of basketball. Whatever your preference, he combines in his musicianship grace, incredible talent, and stamina.

The Ma family moved from Paris to New York when Yo-Yo was still a child. He eventually attended the Juilliard School of Music in New York, and studied with the brilliant cellist, Leonard Rose. He was nine years old when he made his debut at Carnegie Hall.

Ma chose to follow a general education at Harvard where he graduated with a BA in liberal arts in 1976. His own description of his years at Harvard is music to my ears as an advocate of the merits of a liberal arts education: Harvard has everything to do with my trying to stretch boundaries . . . My Harvard experience informs my life to this day. As a kid, I had lived in different places, but still I was fairly protected. Harvard was the first place in my life where I was systematically introduced to different worlds and ways of thinking. I learned there how science and art are joined under philosophy.

At Harvard he juggled his general studies and his life as a professional musician. After graduation he went on to a career that led him through the classical repertoire for cello, the new compositions mentioned above, and into what is called crossover music, ranging from tango to blue grass with nearly all musical points in between. These forays into different musical genres have not been without controversy, but the proof of the pudding is in the eating: in 2000 he won an Oscar at the 73rd Academy Awards Ceremony for Best Score for the sound track of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. In all, he has won fourteen Grammy awards. Along the way, he received the Avery Fisher Prize in 1978 and more recently the Glenn Gould award.

Yo-Yo Ma in his professional life is often simultaneously a teacher and a learner. He describes his approach to teaching and mentoring in wonderfully simple terms: I think of mentoring more as sharing: This is what I know. What do you know Maybe we can trade.?

Ma is a musical and a cultural wanderer. His natural inquisitiveness leads him far afield, exploring old and new musical traditions. Those traditions are at the heart of different cultures. He has played the age-old instruments of the bushmen of the Kalahari, retro-adapted his cello to play Vivaldi as it would have sounded during the master's life time, and experimented with the Japanese stringed instrument, the biwa.

One of his most ambitious undertakings, launched in 1998 and still under way, is the Silk Road Project. The undertaking studies the cross-cultural flow of ideas and artistic expression between different peoples along the ancient Silk Road route that linked the Middle and Far East with the West. Ma calls it the internet of antiquity, because the road served as a pathway for cultural ideas. In the course of 25 years of performing in different parts of the world, I have become intrigued by the migration of ideas among communities, Ma said in a statement about the project. We live in a world of increasing interdependence, and I believe that music can act as a magnet to draw people together. Music can reach to the very core of one?s identity.

I like to think of a university as a kind of venerable musical instrument, so Yo-Yo Ma's words strike a deep chord with me. Every generation in every tradition, he says, ?has to reinvent the world for itself. When I play Mozart with someone who's 24, we bring very different concerns to the same music. We don't play the same Mozart.

Every tradition is a result of innovation. It's hard for innovation and tradition to sit in the same room together. If we can really make them work together, that's the kind of creativity we want.

Amen. What goes for music, goes for AUB.