Sources of Joy: Meeting Yo-Yo Ma

Meeting Yo-Yo Ma was a life thrill.

If Jerry Maguire had Dorothy at “Hello,” Yo-Yo Ma had me the second he walked in the door to the Chicago Tribune Editorial Board meeting.

The 20 or so of us waiting for him instantly stood up in a spontaneous yet unified motion, as if all driven by the same need to recognize the world-acclaimed cellist who seeks each day to realize his aspiration of being a “citizen-artist.”

He made his way around the room in an unhurried fashion, stopping to talk to this one about their children who were classmates in school, making sure to connect with each person.

Although at 56 he is likely more than halfway through his life’s journey, Yo-Yo not only looked young-his face is unlined, his blue blazer hung well on his trim frame, and his black slightly receding hair has but minor flecks of grey-he exuded a childlike exuberance and spontaneity throughout his more than hourlong visit.

Here he interjected to add texture to Chicago Symphony Orchestra President Deborah Rutter’s comments.

There he jumped up to serve water to anyone around the table, as if he were the host and we were the honored guests, rather than the reverse.

“He serves wine at parties, too,” Rutter said, drawing knowing laughter from all of us who both could easily imagine that picture and would give a lot to be at those gatherings.

Of course, the one we were at was absolutely mesmerizing.

Yo-Yo started by picking up his 1712 Davidoff Stradivarius cello, asking us to tell him what we thought while listening, and then playing the prelude from Bach’s Cello Suite No. 1.

Here’s the link to the footage James Janega of TribNation shot.

Yo-Yo told us later he had played the same piece at Steve Jobs’s funeral.

Alternately slow, then fast, the music’s lush tones filled the wooden-paneled room, leaving us all in a near-hypnotic trance.

Although Yo-Yo encouraged us to close our eyes if we wanted, I’m glad that I kept them open for most of the performance because I saw him making eye contact with many of us as he played.

While a highlight, this private concert was only the beginning of the experience.

Yo-Yo talked about a wide range of topics: about the importance of both learning through travel and of setting down roots in a place where you stake a claim, as he has done in Chicago; about Chicago’s role as a city and site of change;  and about his meeting with top city education officials and the mayor about having more arts education in the schools.

He spoke about not worrying whether people pay to hear him live or listening to him for free on speakers because he is most concerned with the image that lives on in people’s minds and hearts, rather than the medium.

He said he was proudest of having gone on children’s shows like Sesame Street, Arthur and Mr. Rogers because he came to the kids and entered their world.

Being a guest means that you have to honor rules, he said, and, when you do that, you have some freedom to speak.

Most basically, he talked about the arts being part of a cultural social movement.

He answered honestly when Editorial Board chief Bruce Dold asked him if he ever had struggled with the cello and wanted to throw it in the water.

“All the time,” he said, before going on to elaborate and explain that he felt the danger of public exposure at very young ages-he performed before Presidents Kennedy and Eisenhower before he was seven years old-meant that he felt for many years that he had not had a choice.

This last point was an important one for me, as it was one that Mom had made to me about Yo-Yo.

I approached him afterward and told him about Mom’s car accident in February 1986, explaining how the paramedics only gave her a 1 percent chance of living when they found her.

I went on to tell him that during her recovery and building of VALT, the non-profit organization she founded, she gained strength and inspiration from his life and work.

I told him I thought she would want him to know his impact, and I thanked him for the contribution he had made to her and to our family.

Yo-Yo gasped and put his hand over his heart.

He asked if he could write Mom a note.

I gave him a piece of paper.

The black cursive handwriting was rapidly formed, but legible.

“Dear Alice,” he wrote after asking her name.

He told Mom he and I had met and I had informed him of her love for music.

He expressed all good wishes.

And he signed his name.

When he found out that Mom lives in Brookline, essentially the same city as Boston, he exclaimed, “My long-lost brother!”

We put our arms around each other’s shoulders as my colleague Gisela Orozco took the picture above.

In the past year since starting at Hoy I’ve had the privilege of meeting Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner, ICE Director John Morton, and Sen. Dick Durbin at other Editorial Board meetings.

These were all significant experiences, but yesterday’s was one that instantly blazed itself into my memory.

I’m confident it will stay in my heart and head for a long, long time.





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