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Yo-Yo Ma doesn’t shake hands, he hugs. He remembers names, makes eye contact and asks, “How have you been?” When he arrives at an elementary school, Ma walks up to students, introduces himself and piques their interests with his focused attention. He is a force of positive energy and optimism in an often cynical world. Although his tenure as the CSO’s Judson and Joyce Green Creative Consultant concludes this season — a post held by the world-renowned cellist since its creation in 2010 — his impact will be long-lasting.

“We should not just hope for immediate success,” said Ma, at a recent Negaunee Music Institute event, “but envision what success should look like 20 years later.” Ma’s ideas on impactful change have been at the foundation of the Negaunee Music Institute’s mission since his arrival. “The Institute should be about building things — things that embolden change,” he said. Over these past nine seasons, Ma inspired and oversaw a purpose-driven approach to Institute programming.

Much of Ma’s work as creative consultant has focused on mentoring the musicians of the Civic Orchestra of Chicago. He encourages them to make their musical journey bigger than themselves — to get outside of the ever-solitary practice room and hone their craft, organically, in their communities. “If you want to expand your musicianship,” he said, “explore your humanity.”

It is this philosophy — that growth is stifled in a confined place and needs to occur outside, in areas that offer new energies and perspectives — that served as the catalyst for many of Yo-Yo Ma’s “artistic challenges” presented to the Negaunee Music Institute.

BACH MARATHON | Since 2014, the Civic Orchestra has presented a city-wide and day-long marathon of performances of J.S. Bach’s six Brandenburg Concertos, which provides the orchestra with an opportunity to share the joy of music with diverse audiences during the holidays.

CONCERTS FOR PEACE | In March 2017, Ma led the creation of the Initiative for a More Peaceful Chicago, which empowers people through numerous projects that engage families who have lost loved ones to gun violence, incarcerated youth at Illinois Youth Centers, and young parents supported by social service organizations.

ONCE UPON A SYMPHONY | Designed for the youngest concertgoers, Once Upon a Symphony weaves together live music performed by CSO members, vivid storytelling, sets and costumes to create a unique and magical experience. These concerts enhance a child’s development as a life-long learner, cultivating skills such as problem-solving, focus, perspective and engaged learning.

CIVIC FELLOWSHIP | This program immerses emerging professional musicians in rigorous training that enhances their membership in the Civic Orchestra. The fellowship empowers participants to realize their full potential as artistically excellent, engaged and entrepreneurial musicians. Fellows serve as facilitators for special projects led by Ma, perform at Symphony Center as well as in schools and communities across the city, mentor young musicians, design and implement community engagement projects, and more.

The end of Ma’s tenure as the Judson and Joyce Green Creative Consultant is really just a beginning to the next chapter of his long and storied work with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra — as a world-class soloist and mentor. During a recent Negaunee Music Institute event, he performed the first movement from Bach’s Cello Suite No. 1. He immediately reprised the passage, but asked the audience to sing and sustain the implied pedal note. It was Ma’s hope this would illustrate humanity’s function — “be the bass note, the support that is felt but not always heard.”

Yo-Yo Ma performs Bach’s Complete Suites for unaccompanied cello at the Jay Pritzker Pavilion in Millennium Park on June 20. For more information, please visit

The Chicago Symphony Orchestra Association is grateful to Judson and Joyce Green for their exceptional leadership and generous support they have provided since 2010 for the creative consultant position held by Yo-Yo Ma.

TOP: Yo-Yo Ma gives an impromptu performance outside the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago on the Near North Side. | Todd Rosenberg Photography