Celebrated cellist builds a 'Silk Road'

Master cellist Yo-Yo Ma jokes that he is working on a hobby that is basic and slow-paced to counteract his hectic schedule.

"[My publicist] suggested knitting," Mr. Ma said with a laugh during a recent interview in his hometown of Cambridge, Mass. "We'll start with crochet. We won't go into ancient patterns; just keep it very simple."

But for now, Ma keeps his fingers busy on the strings of his famed $3-million Montagnana cello, made 267 years ago in Venice.

He travels the globe regularly for concert performances and he recently released a new album, "Solo" (Sony Classical). He has also created an educational and cultural initiative called the Silk Road Project.

"The idea came from 20 years of looking and traveling," Ma says. "One of the great things about traveling is that you're constantly learning."

He became inspired by the historic trade route that connected Asia and Europe in the 7th and 8th centuries. Musical styles and instruments were among the things that traveled the Silk Road. String, wind, and percussion instruments moved east and west, influencing other cultures.

The Silk Road is "a metaphor for what is possible today," Ma says. "If we take the most talented people [around the world] in artistic disciplines and ... work really seriously together and give it time, how can we make traditional things and innovative things work together?"

In the fall of 2002, Ma will see some results of his efforts: Top musicians will perform at the Smithsonian Folklife Festival on the Washington Mall.

Ma's musical journey continues with his "Solo" album. On it, he plays five original works for solo cello, each rooted in different cultures, such as Mark O'Connor's "Appalachia Waltz" and Zoltn Kodly's Hungarian folk-themed sonata.

"Music that we categorize as 'classical' is actually kind of a global music without putting it into another category of 'world music,' " he says.

Ma is the father of two teenagers and says each is passionate about music. His daughter, Emily, plays violin and piano, and his son, Nicholas, plays piano. "When they're home, you hear them singing all the time. It's great. It's a nice part of their lives, and you know that something's percolating inside [them]."

That's a change from the days when his daughter used to fall asleep every time he played a concert.

"She used to say, 'Daddy, it's not that I don't like to hear you play, but it's dark in the hall and I get so sleepy and so comfy.' But she's beyond that now. I think she does stay awake."

As a parent, Ma is attracted to projects for children. Last year, he appeared on the animated children's TV show "Arthur." He also admires the show "Mister Rogers' Neighborhood." "He is really the advocate for kids. [Mr. Rogers] takes you into his world.... He's safe, believable, and that's what I try to be."

Ma says he believes strongly in arts education because it helps foster discipline and imagination, and it improves communication.

"It allows you to express what your inner vision of something is," he says.

Although some would argue that classical music is dead, Ma is an optimist.

"I expect a great period to be coming.... I'm a natural contrarian who says, 'Don't you see what's coming ahead behind the hill?' "

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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