Music News & Reviews

In Sacramento speakers event, Yo-Yo Ma to share life of music

Yo-Yo Ma, winner of 17 Grammy Awards, will be at Memorial Auditorium on Tuesday.
Yo-Yo Ma, winner of 17 Grammy Awards, will be at Memorial Auditorium on Tuesday. Sony Music Entertainment

You read the news. Maybe you’re holding the ink-on-newsprint version right now. Maybe you’re staring at a tablet, phone or computer. But it’s news just the same, and you know the news is complicated.

There’s a lot of it, and much of it is sad, dispiriting and terrifying. And it seems to come at us faster every day.

What we need is a calming influence, a wise and experienced voice to sit us down and help us make sense of the world.

What we need is a cellist.

“As the world changes around us,” Yo-Yo Ma says during a recent phone interview, “how can we react to it with openness and not fear?”

Tuesday, Ma will present a lecture and perform at Memorial Auditorium as part of the Sacramento Speakers Series, and he’ll do it as much for himself as the audience, working through what he’s learned across the decades of a singular work life.

The themes – culture, identity, citizenship – are big and difficult, yes, but they’re wheelhouse areas of expertise for Ma, whose curiosity and creativity have carried him around the globe for decades.

“What do changes mean to us?” he says. “How do we feel we’re participants in the change?” How do we get along as a group, while maintaining a true sense of self? And how does one approach this without getting too far into politics, which tend only to create barriers?

The evening will offer “an examination of things we all go through in common,” Ma says. “I use examples of my life and say, ‘This is what I’ve learned.’”

Born to Chinese parents in Paris in 1955, Ma grew up in New York and went to Juilliard and Harvard. His discography is 90 albums deep. The list of musicians he hasn’t played with seemingly is shorter than those he has, but those he has includes Italian film composer Ennio Morricone and American country stars the Dixie Chicks. He has visited with Mr. Rogers and spent time on “Sesame Street.”

He has won 17 Grammy Awards, for chamber music, classical music, classical crossover music and folk music. The folk honor was for 2011’s “The Goat Rodeo Sessions,” a brilliantly named collaboration with mandolin ace Chris Thile and other hotshots.

Ma’s most recent release was 2013’s “A Playlist Without Borders.” It was recorded with his Silk Road Ensemble, a “limitless collective” crossing culture, genre and any other imagined line anyone might draw.

He has performed for eight presidents (he was 7 when he performed for Dwight D. Eisenhower and John F. Kennedy). He carries the title of U.N. Messenger of Peace. A 2010 Wall Street Journal piece declared: “Perhaps someone somewhere is not Yo-Yo Ma’s friend.” Perhaps, but an examination of photos from throughout his career shows nothing but smiles, so it’s unlikely.

He has been married 36 years but has spent the equivalent of 24 of them on the road. “So I’ve actually been married 12 years,” he says with a laugh. “What does a person like me have to say about this strange life I’ve led?”

A lot, and based on a 25-minute chat with Ma, much of what he has to say is about the power of perspective, and the little things we can do. It’s hard to read the news and not be discouraged. Were he to internalize it all, he says, “I’d be certifiable.” We would all be. It would be bleak.

“To stay positive is a philosophical decision,” Ma says. Think of a 300-year-old tree and all it has seen. It’s seen world wars, a civil war. It saw the American Revolution. “It’s been witness to so many things, and it’s stayed alive,” he says.

With the big picture in focus, the small moments, the daily decisions don’t seem as daunting. We all have those decisions. We aren’t all that different. Ma says he’ll play songs that have inspired him, pieces of music he’s loved. But it will all come back to us, all of us, and where we are, and how we get along and get by.

“It’s not just about understanding people far away,” Ma says. “It’s about understanding your neighbor.”

Yo-Yo Ma

What: The famed cellist shares his life perspective in a lecture and performance that are part of the Sacramento Speaker Series.

When: 8 p.m. Tuesday

Where: Memorial Auditorium (1515 J. St., Sacramento)

Cost: $140-$300 for remaining speakers in the series (tickets sold by series only)

Information: (916) 388-1100;