Since its founding 15-plus years ago, cellist Yo-Yo Ma’s Silk Road Project has literally spanned the globe. The project’s shifting roster of musicians and composers has offered concerts and outreach programs on three continents, appearing in more than 100 cities in 30 countries, traveling from Boston to Beijing, from the United States to the United Arab Emirates.
Ma, the Chicago Symphony’s Judson and Joyce Green Creative Consultant, was inspired by the idea of the Silk Road, the ancient trade route that stretched from Italy to the far eastern shores of China and Japan from 500 B.C. through 1500 A.D. As one of classical music’s genuine superstars, Ma travels the world, and in the 1980s and 1990s, he became intensely curious about the music of non-Western countries he visited. He befriended performers and composers from Azerbaijan to Africa.
Founded in 1998 and making its concert debut in 2000, Ma’s Silk Road Project was inspired by the cross-fertilization of far-flung locales. Performers in the Silk Road Ensemble include a heady mix of Western musicians and virtuosos of non-Western instruments like the oud and the pipa. But one of the project’s sturdiest roots was firmly planted in sweet home Chicago.
Chicago will be a stop on the ensemble’s 15th anniversary U.S. tour that kicks off Feb. 19 in New York City and concludes March 7 in Goshen, Ind. For the group’s March 6 concert at Symphony Center, Ma and his colleagues from the United States, Syria, India, China, Spain, Iran and Israel by way of Russia will perform music by composers from a half-dozen countries. The project’s 15th anniversary celebrations began earlier this season with tours that included concerts in Amsterdam’s prestigious Concertgebouw and Tokyo’s Suntory Hall. Writer-director Morgan Neville, who won an Oscar for 20 Feet from Stardom (2013), is chronicling the Silk Road season for a feature-length documentary.
Ma, who was born in Paris to Chinese parents in 1955, remembers visiting Chicago as a little boy. His family moved to the United States when he was 7 years old, and they took a cross-country train trip to explore their new home. “We landed in Chicago and spent some time there,” he said. “I’ve always loved it; I’ve known the city for 52 years.
“I think Chicago has always been important as one of the places for beginnings to take place,” he continued. “At every stage of my life, I’ve been impressed by the vibrancy and sincerity of the people. [The Silk Road Ensemble] has come to Chicago from very early on, and it’s the only city we’ve ever worked in for a full year.”
Chicago’s connection to the Silk Road Project blossomed into a city-wide festival in 2006/07. A cooperative venture between the CSO, the Art Institute of Chicago and the City of Chicago’s cultural affairs and tourism departments, Silk Road Chicago featured concerts with Ma and musicians from the CSO and the Silk Road Ensemble throughout the year. The Art Institute mounted special exhibits, lectures and family events related to art from Silk Road countries, and 70 other local organizations offered 250 Silk Road-related events, most of them free, in neighborhoods throughout the city. It was truly remarkable, an organic, city-wide collaboration involving Chicago cultural groups large and small.
“These things are always a combination of place and people,” Ma said. “It gradually developed from a series of meetings — some planned, some less planned.” Ma had worked over the years with Deborah Rutter, then the CSO’s president, and James Cuno, then head of the Art Institute, also is a friend. Lois Weisberg, the high-powered czarina of City Hall’s tourism and cultural affairs operations at the time, steered the festival’s reach deep into Chicago’s neighborhoods.
The Silk Road Project is based in Boston, Ma’s hometown, and since 2005 has been closely affiliated with Harvard University, his alma mater. Cross-fertilization of the arts and educational outreach always have been among its priorities. The project has designed Silk Road-related materials for teachers in elementary and secondary schools, and in 2009 started a pilot program in selected New York City middle schools. With a roster of approximately 60 musicians, the ensemble has recorded five CDs (including one on CSO Resound) and commissioned works from 80 composers. The new works range from Mille Etoiles by Glenn Kotche, a composer and drummer with the acclaimed Chicago-based rock band Wilco, to Ambush From Ten Sides, a traditional pipa piece arranged for pipa, sheng guitar, cello and orchestra by Chinese composer Li Cang Sang.
Ma didn’t have a precise vision for the Silk Road Project when he launched it in 1998. “The idea was always wanting to see how a group of people from around the world might work together, to collaborate and create useful things. It was, in a way, a response to an increasing globalization that entered into some sectors more than others. This was 1998, nine years after the fall of the Soviet Union. The tech industry was going a million miles a minute; we were already experiencing different types of economic downturns from things like computers and [music] selling rights. Things were almost beyond our control because forces were set in motion, and we didn’t always know what the results would be.
“So the experiment was to see if we could find like-minded people,” Ma said. “The only requirements would be that they would know something deeply, they would be very generous in sharing it, and they were curious about the world. It’s not like, ‘Oh, here’s my beautiful thing and I just want to keep it that way.’ It’s ‘Here’s the beautiful thing I know, and I’d really love to meet other people who have beautiful things to share.’ ”
The hope, said Ma, was to start a network that would create beautiful things that could be shared in different places around the world. “Did I know that we were going to go in specific directions?” he said. “No, absolutely not. It was more like a lab. What would happen if we did this, what would happen if we did work in museums or if we went into inner-city schools?
“And now, if we began a cultural entrepreneurship program that starts with prizes but then becomes a field of study [involving] undergraduates and graduate schools and business school. Could this become a field of study?”
Ma observes that most of America’s major cultural institutions are more than 100 years old. They may need help in shifting from an operating structure that made sense 100 years ago but works less well in the early 21st century. “Maybe we could find some things that could be useful,” he said.
The Silk Road Project currently has a staff of 10 and a budget in the $4 million range, a significant improvement over the project’s earliest days. “We had no funds,” Ma said. “People would open their doors for musicians to live. We drove people around, bought rice cookers and food — a lot of beef for the Mongolians. It was truly a mom-and-pop effort. People volunteered and stayed, and they brought in their friends.”
Ma’s own approach to Western music, whether a Bach cello suite or a big Romantic-era concerto, has changed as well in the past 15 years.
“I feel personally so much more human,” he said, “so much more connected to any audience I see. I often feel like I’m a much better musician. I listen better. I don’t play anything by rote, in the sense that ‘This is the way I do it.’ It’s more like ‘How should I do it? How should it sound?’ I’m thinking more about rhythmic patterns, I’m thinking in between the notes. I try not to play anything unless I know exactly why it’s there. It’s never on automatic.
“I’m much more open; I’m not uptight,” he continued. “I’m trying to be more like a traditional musician in that I’m happy to play anytime. Give me a big hall or a hallway or a patch of green someplace, your house, your kitchen. I don’t perform. I just share.”
Wynne Delacoma, former classical music critic for the Chicago Sun-Times, is a Chicago-based arts writer and lecturer.