Yo-Yo Ma returns to Chautauqua Institution

Photo by Jordan W. Patterson Yo-Yo Ma, world-renowned classical cellist and 19-time Grammy award winner, graced the Amphitheater stage inside the Chautauqua Institution on Friday. Ma's third visit featured him discussing the importance of culture and show off his musical talents with two performances on his cello.

CHAUTAUQUA — “Culture turns them into us.”

Yo-Yo Ma, world-renowned classical cellist and 19-time Grammy Award winner, said those words on his return to Chautauqua Institution where he delivered a lecture that was combined with a musical performance and optimism for culture.

Michael Hill, Chautauqua Institution president, introduced Ma prior to him taking center stage while admitting how significant this moment for him was.

“There are so many moments as president of the institution where I love my job — today is a pinch me day,” Hill said.

At that moment, Ma crept up behind Hill in front of a packed Amphitheater and pinched the president of the institution. The crowd, Hill and Ma all erupted into laughter just moments before the famous cellist would give his interpretation of culture and its role in life.

The Chautauqua Institution’s week seven theme “The Arts and Global Understanding,” was capped off with Ma’s lecture and a scheduled performance late Friday with the Silk Road Ensemble. The ensemble is a classical music group that was founded by Ma in 1998. The group took the same stage earlier in the week giving a lecture as well.

Ma’s morning lecture incorporated a slide show, two cello performances by Ma, humor and his own interpretation of culture. His description of culture entertained philosophy, emotion and even consciousness.

Ma’s lecture titled, “Culture, Understanding and Survival,” emphasized the importance of culture and went as far as saying the human race’s existence depended on culture.

Ma is known for his musical talents that include more than 100 recorded albums, but he is also celebrated for his creation of programs that include the Silk Road Ensemble. He also serves as artistic advisor to the John F. Kennedy Center for Performing Arts, artistic director of the annual Youth Music Culture Guandong festival and additionally a UN Messenger of Peace.

His list of accolades include the aforementioned Grammy nods, the National Medal for the Arts, the World Economic Forum’s Crystal Award, the Presidential Medal of Freedom, Kennedy Center Honors and the J. Paul Getty Medal Award.

On top of everything else, he has performed for eight American presidents.

The Grammy-winning musician warned the audience that civilization was at a crucial moment in time. He spoke about one of his favorite topics in college being the rise and fall of civilizations, and he pondered if the current culture, himself included, was on the rise or fall of its civic momentum. Ma didn’t have a definitive answer but maintained that culture has an enormous role in figuring it out.

“Culture helps us understand our environment,” Ma said.

Throughout the lecture, Ma described culture as being a plethora of definitions with one being a bridge to other people through understanding. Shown on the screens hanging high above the stage at different points during his talk, Ma displayed a venn diagram with politics, economics and culture all intersecting in the middle — a place where all three impact one another. But out of the three highlighted words, he focused primarily on culture.

“Culture helps us imagine a better future,” he said.

After his first musical performance, Ma described a place his mind goes when he’s performing between sub-consciousness and consciousness. Similarly, Ma said he often travels to “the edge” where he receives greater access to his ideas. He encouraged the audience to do the same and “live with (their) ideas, but bring the best ones back.” Bringing the best ideas from the edge to the center is the key to understanding, according to Ma.

Ultimately, Ma praised culture as not only serving as a thing, but as an action too.

“Culture is so powerful because it’s a search for truth,” he said. “It’s a search that never ends.”