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  • Jim Bessman

Yo-Yo Ma closes APAP virtual trade conference on multi-cultural note


Celebrated cellist Yo-Yo Ma was the attraction at the Jan. 12 closing plenary session of the Association of Performing Arts Professionals (APAP) APAP|NYC+ 2021 trade conference, which like the panels, showcases and exhibition hall set-ups that preceded it, was held virtually online due to the pandemic.

Ma’s session took the form of an informal chat with APAP board member Renae Williams Niles, who heads Renae WN Consulting. She saluted Ma for his service as a UN Messenger of Peace, and being both the first artist ever appointed to the World Economic Forum’s board of trustees and a recipient of the Fred Rogers Legacy Award.


She also noted that “most impressive,” Ma has been married to the same woman for over 40 years.

“My wife is still putting me on yearly leases!” Ma responded, noting that every year she either renews it “or I’m out!” But he acknowledged that he is usually at home only one-third of the time, the other two-thirds spent “visiting APAP presenters—and it’s like I’m married to them as well!”


Niles, citing Covid and social upheaval–and the performing arts world’s tragic “loss of family, touring, and sense of community”–asked Ma how he’s been impacted.


“My life is no different than anybody else’s right now,” said Ma, who is indeed working from home like most everybody else. In fact, he “went to emergency mode” after March 10 of last year—the last time I played live in the States.”


He then thanked Niles for mentioning Mister Rogers.


“He was a role model! He used to say that his mother used to say, ‘Whenever there’s a crisis, you can always look for the helpers.’”


“Helpers,” Ma noted, “respond to need.”


“Helpers give hope,” he said. “Helpers give succor to those in need. In whatever way, all of us can help in one way or another.”


In Ma’s case, being a musician, he tries to “Zoom into private hospital rooms or vast tents [of Covid patients],” perform for health care workers, and “go out on a flat bed truck with my buddy [classical pianist] Emanuel Ax” and play for high school or college students and “people graduating without ceremonies that they’re aching to enjoy.”


“There is a place for music,” Ma maintained.


Niles noted that last year’s APAP conference theme was “Risk and Reslience,” and said that she’s never heard the word “resilience” more frequently than during the last nine months. Another word being frequently used now, she added, is “hope.”


Here Ma realized that being in the year 2021, in 2100—79 years from now—his youngest grandchild will be 79: “I’m suddenly thinking, my goodness, I’ll be long dead, but what world am I leaving for my grandchildren?”


Reflecting on the “authenticity” sought and demanded by young people, Ma noted that funding generally comes from older ones, idealism from the young.


“There’s so much work to be done, so much to fix and repair,” he said. “Can’t we bring those two most precious resources together and accelerate the process by giving custodial responsibility to younger people way sooner, and with us just listening–and when appropriate, helping?”


Relating that he himself is 65, Ma wondered how to best spend his remaining years.


“We need to solve some near-term, midterm and very long-term problems,” he said, conceding that he likely won’t be around to see the long-term ones through.


“But someone who is young can easily go half-a-century and work for presenting organizations,” he said, directly addressing them as “scouts for society” who can find artists “who are saying something important for us.”


“You can see over the ledge and see the dangers ahead–or beautiful things ahead,” said Ma. “What can you report back to our communities?”


Asked by Niles about “the disease of perfectionism,” Ma forwarded a lesson taught him by theater director Peter Sellars: “You don’t need to deliver the whole package signed and sealed and wrapped beautifully, but have to ask someone to complete it. It’s a big, big lesson: Don’t complete the whole thing, becuase the magic we’re all looking for is people meeting you halfway–the communal moment that we want to have and remember and hold on to and come back to later.”


“So perfection, no! Communication of something aspirational, absolutely!” He added: “I love when a string breaks at the beginning of a concert. Why? The damage is done–and everybody realizes that that happens.”


As the talk had transitioned to what Niles called “true collaborations when entities really do come together in unity and shared space to do something they don’t do independently,” she asked Ma to speak of The Bach Project, his two-year journey begun in 2018 and involving his performance of Johann Sebastian Bach’s six suites for solo cello in 36 locations around the world. The suites were among the first music he ever learned when starting cello at age four, and he was motivated, too, by Bach’s ability to speak to shared humanity at a time when civic conversation is often focused on division.


Niles noted how Ma used the Bach suites as a tool to learn from others—and other cultures, including indigenous tribes in Taiwan via a virtual visit in November. Niles herself had also experienced a cultural connection with a Taiwanese indigenous group.


“What happened with you and that indigenous group is the ultimate gift,” said Ma. “They let you in, and that is the crux of any artistic experience: Not watching through the window looking at Tiny Tim and seeing what happens next year, but being invited in–and you were invited in. I hope this is what all presenters are doing–not just presenting something but allowing the community to welcome a new member and new guest as a template for what we all do.”


Ma mentioned working with celebrated indigenous Taiwanese songstress Abao, who includes indigenous words from her tribe in her pop songs. He also recalled meeting a Hawaiian who had sailed throughout the Pacific solely via celestial navigation and was training younger people.


“They have a lot to teach us,” he said of indigenous peoples. “I met so many groups during The Bach Project, in Canada, the States, Australia, New Zealand. They hold a lot of wisdom that can help us stay resilient.”


Closing with a solo cello performance blend of the Shakers song “Simple Gifts” and Dvorak’s “Goin’ Home” theme from his New World Symphony, Ma said, “The meaning of life is actually very simple: It comes from the very simple things we do, and simple gifts, and in terms of simple kindnesses—treating the next human being the way we would like to be treated.”


And rather than “compose like me,” Ma urged plenary attendees to “listen to what’s around.”

“Let’s listen to voices of younger people and what they see ahead–and let’s do it together.”


APAP’s new CEO/president Lisa Richards Toney closed the 2021 virtual APAP conference by noting that it had been an “agenda-setting conference.”


“This is not the end,” she declared. “We are not returning to business as usual. This is the beginning: to engaging more equitably in advancing the field as the richly diverse ecosystem that we are; to building forward with anti-racism as our lens; to addressing the climate crisis as the sea level rises that affects us all; to centering the voice of Blacks, indigenous and all people of color; to better visa and immigration policies; to outdoor programming; to resilience and mental health; to recovering in an altered touring landscape; to public health and reopening; to the art of going virtual–and HEPA [High-efficiency particulate air] filters!”


“We’ve got work to do, but we have imagination to uncover and promises to uphold,” Toney concluded. “We are just getting started!”

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