Like Dvorák, Cellist Yo-Yo Ma finds inspiration in sense of place

Ma shares 'deep feelings for the culture'

Yo-Yo Ma,  a fan of barbecue and jookin', calls Memphis "an incredibly vibrant place where I love to keep coming back."

Photo by Michael OíNeill

Yo-Yo Ma, a fan of barbecue and jookin', calls Memphis "an incredibly vibrant place where I love to keep coming back."

Yo-Yo Ma

Performs with the Memphis Symphony Orchestra and the New Ballet Ensemble. 7:30 p.m. Monday at the Cannon Performing Arts Center, 255 N. Main. Tickets: $50-$150. Call 901-537-2525 or go to

When Yo-Yo Ma comes to the Cannon Performing Arts Center on Monday night, he is, to hear him say it, coming back to a special place.

"I have deep feelings for the culture there and its great contributions to culture," he said in a recent phone interview.

The world-renowned cellist has performed here several times, always drawing adoring crowds and rarely passing up an opportunity for barbecue.

On Monday, he'll be the guest performer with the Memphis Symphony Orchestra in a special concert in which he will perform Antonin Dvorák's Cello Concerto in B Minor, Opus 104.

The piece, Ma says, reflects not only the composer's life, but also his philosophy, one with a significant impact on American music.

At the time Dvorák wrote the concerto, he was director of the National Conservatory of Music in New York. He told his students they should write not what he wrote, but rather the music that is all around them. His versatile works are full of not only the Bohemian influences of his birthplace, but also of wherever he happened to be, and he traveled extensively.

"You can hear and see those elements in his music because he was writing music that was around him," Ma says, "whether his home or his new home or his feelings for people. He believed in full participation in the society around him."

And that's what he taught. Dvorák, Ma said, instructed his students to "Take it in, drink it in, think and feel everything that is around you. His students passed that down, and his students' students would become Gershwin, Copland and Duke Ellington. He's like their musical grandfather."

And like Dvorák, Ma is keenly aware of what's going on around him, Memphis influences included.

"You have this dance thing called jookin' which is very much a Memphis thing," he says.

Ma knows about jookin' because he's been performing with Charles "Lil Buck" Riley, who grew up in Memphis and has become a dance sensation, having performed with Madonna and around the globe. A video of Riley and Ma performing Camille Saint-Saëns' "The Dying Swan" went viral on YouTube.

"Speaking of artistic traditions that come from Memphis — not only in music but in dance — this is an incredibly vibrant place where I love to keep coming back," Ma says.

Ma also invokes Dvorák's philosophy when it comes to using music to make the world a better place. This is something he does with his nonprofit Silk Road Project, which boosts music and education, and it's something he sees in the MSO's community outreach efforts.

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