Chicago is Yo-Yo Ma's cultural soapbox

The Chicago Public Schools, the Silk Road Ensemble, the Humanities Festival, the Civic Orchestra of Chicago, the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, Citizen Musician, "cultural entrepreneurship" — Yo-Yo Ma has a way of filling his plate during his now-frequent visits to Chicago.

The world-renowned cellist and CSO creative consultant arrives Thursday for almost a week of activities with Chicago institutions as he continues working to elevate the role of culture in our everyday lives. As usual there will be performances and public appearances: He and his Silk Road Ensemble will make their first Symphony Center appearance since 2007 on Saturday night for a program that includes Dimitri Yanov-Yanovsky's "Sacred Signs," written to mark the centennial of Igor Stravinsky's "The Rite of Spring."

The Chicago Humanities Festival's Northwestern Day on Sunday features "Yo-Yo Ma and Damian Woetzel: A Conversation About Arts and Citizenship" (7:30 p.m., Cahn Auditorium, 600 Emerson St., Evanston). Ma and ballet star Woetzel, his frequent collaborator and the Aspen Institute's arts director, will discuss, as the program puts it, "how artists practice their citizenship, as individuals and through institutions — and how the arts fulfill a fundamental human need by forging and strengthening community." Sunday's presentation will feature CSO composer-in-residence Anna Clyne and brief performances by Ma and CSO and Civic Orchestra members, plus a music-accompanied poetry reading by a Chicago high school student.

Ma and Woetzel also are slated to participate in a Monday morning program involving the Chicago Public Schools' arts plan, and Ma will be back on the Symphony Center stage Tuesday night for a town hall meeting with the young Civic Orchestra musicians, with whom he'll be engaging more directly to boost their involvement in the broader cultural world.

"As musicians, we are trained to work toward something bigger than ourselves," Ma wrote in a letter to the Civic musicians last month. "Identifying and responding to the needs of the people around us is one way music can be of service. You are citizens of the world, advocates and ambassadors for all the cultures we represent. Our borders are limited only by our imaginations."

On the phone from the Berkshires earlier this week, Ma said: "We have a wonderful opportunity to present and to work with and to challenge and to nurture or to just share various things with younger musicians of Civic Orchestra age, early 20s, and to look at how many different ways music is actually active in society. And to have them take leadership roles in not only being Citizen Musicians but also to model that with other people, with the people they come into contact with."

Civic principal conductor Cliff Colnot said Ma not only will be sharing the principles of the CSO-initiated Citizen Musician project with the musicians but also collaborating with them throughout the year to prepare for a May performance of Beethoven's Symphony No. 6.

"This is big-time deal to have someone of his gravitas to interact with the Civic, for them to be able to hear his points of view about the Citizen Musician (initiative) and to hear him play and rehearse," Colnot said. "It's quite something for the young musicians."

Silk Road Ensemble members also will be conducting workshops with Civic musicians during Ma's stay.

Ma, who will participate in plenty of meetings on top of his appearances, said these activities are part of a larger effort to recognize and boost the importance of culture. The Citizen Musician effort began in January 2011, but now he's broadening the conversation to "cultural entrepreneurship," sort of a corollary to the recent push for social entrepreneurship.

"These days most people would say what we need in our workforce are people with the following qualities: collaboration, flexibility, imagination and innovation," Ma said. "Musicians, people in the performing arts … those are the very same values that we're trying to practice. So the question is, are we practicing those values as much as we can? Are we practicing them in the places we want to? If you think you can do more or do it differently or do it better, that leads to the concept of cultural entrepreneurship."

He added that he expects such themes to be raised in his Humanities Festival program.

"I'm excited about the Humanities Festival in that they have a theme of 'America,' what is America today?" Ma said. "Perfect for election time. Is it a geographic mass? Is it an idea? Is it the Constitution? Is it the people? Is it the human resources? What is it? For people in culture or in education or in the workforce or in industry, I think those are questions that each field, and each one of us has to actually grapple with, because if we don't, we could lose the plot."

At any rate, Ma, who previously has met with Mayor Rahm Emanuel about his efforts, said he'll be happy to be back engaging in so many facets of Chicago's life.

"I so love the city," he said, "and I'm so inspired by people in the city and by the will — by the grittiness and the loftiness both together."

Twitter @MarkCaro

Copyright © 2015, RedEye
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