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Yo Yo Ma – A Gifted Giver

Last week Yo Yo MA was in Santa Barbara as part of the UCSB Arts & Lectures series, and while his 300-year-old cello was on the stage, what the audience mostly got was a remarkable creative, artistic and personal memoir, as Mr. Ma reflected on his development as a musician, performing artist, global citizen, and father.


The presentation felt more like one was sitting across the table from Yo Yo at a lively dinner at the St. Botolph Club inBoston, where in fact he sometimes goes. Ma framed his comments with these lines from T. S. Elliot:


“We shall not cease from exploration, and the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time.”

For Ma that ‘place’ is the Bach partita number one that he learned as a four-year old from his father, and was the beginning of his phenomenal musical odyssey. He has played that piece in concerts, at the White House, at weddings, and at funerals, and while the music has not changed, he has changed and his interpretations have evolved.


Bach, for many musicians, is like Shakespeare for writers, the influence is ever-present, and Ma talked about his own anatomy of that influence. After many years of trying to understand what there is in Bach that is so complete, he had two epiphanies. The first was that Bach is empathetic to the ‘whole’ of the human experience, and the second was that Bach is ‘totally objective’ – empathy and objectivity – love and rigor – art and science -   characteristics that do not typically rest easily with each other. More recently, Ma has realized a third centrality that is within Bach that addresses the challenge that music, like life, is intangible. Bach’s music gives us a path to infinity, to ‘that thing’ greater than ourselves, and while Ma did not say this, to the realm of belief, and of the spiritual.


Yo Yo Ma was not talking about philanthropy but the very characteristics he ascribes to the music of Bach, and the way he has gifted his own talent and persona beyond the music, beyond the cello – Toronto’s Music GardenThe Silk Road Ensemble – and his more recent work in the Chicago public schools and elsewhere – is exactly the kind of exploration that that both challenges and drives the most gifted of donors.  There are many good lessons here. Perhaps the most important is that the ‘listening’ never ends.


Filed under: Strategic Philanthropy

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