Following the Silk Road to Tel Aviv

Fifteen-time Grammy winner Yo-Yo Ma returns to Israel to accept one of his biggest prizes.

Yo Yo Ma 88 298 (photo credit: )
Yo Yo Ma 88 298
(photo credit: )
If he hadn't been here to receive a million dollars in a ceremony attended by Israel's president, Yo-Yo Ma might not have had much reason to distinguish his visit to Tel Aviv this week from the rest of his constant travels around the globe. In Israel for less than 96 hours, Ma arrived from Azerbaijan Sunday evening and was on his way to Italy by Wednesday night, a trip that will be followed in short order with a visit to Japan and concerts across the United States. His brief stop in Israel appeared no less hectic than his international travel itinerary, with the world famous cellist maintaining a pace of public appearances that would put most campaigning politicians to shame. But in a brief interview Tuesday afternoon in a classroom at Tel Aviv University, the 55-year-old Ma demonstrated that he's learned to live comfortably inside the whirlwind, speaking energetically with journalists during separate 15-minute interviews overseen by a team of three handlers. The Harvard- and Julliard-trained cellist appeared almost completely nonplussed by the chaos surrounding him, ignoring students' chatter and jokingly offering a reporter several of the dozen or so water bottles arrayed for his benefit on a nearby desk. But though he's friendly and focused, seated at a small student's desk in Classroom 202, he acknowledges that he hasn't exactly been suffering lately from a "lack of over-stimulation." And despite his jam-packed travel schedule, Ma's trip to Israel was unquestionably a memorable one, inspired by the $1 million prize he collected Monday night as a winner of the 2006 Dan David Prize, an award administered through Tel Aviv University for "achievements having an outstanding scientific, technological, cultural or social impact on our world." Though Ma has won a slew of accolades including 15 Grammies, the Dan David award is easily the largest financial prize he's received in nearly three decades as the most famous classical musician of his generation. "This is like the sky falling down," he laughs, remembering his reaction to learning about the award. Ma has well-defined plans for what he'll do with the money, which he received as the winner in the "Past" category of the Dan David Prize. (Four journalists split another $1 million award in the "Present" category at this year's ceremony, and two American cancer researchers will share the "Future" prize.) While $100,000 of the prize money will go to fund scholarships for graduate students - an allocation required by the prize committee - Ma will use the rest of his award to continue the work of the Silk Road Project, an organization he founded in 1998 in part to study the spread of ideas and culture across the length of Asia. Named for a network of trade routes originating in China and stretching east to Japan and west toward the Mediterranean, the Silk Road Project has commissioned original musical works from musicians across Asia and stages festivals around the world celebrating the centuries-long intermingling of cultures that took place on the Silk Road. Ma's Dan David Prize honored the organization's efforts at "preserving cultural heritage," with the remaining $900,000 to be spent on a 15-month arts festival in Chicago involving 250 events featuring dance, music, theater and visual and culinary arts. Part of the reason he picked Chicago, Ma said, was that over 100 million people live within a 500-mile radius of the city, making it a true "heartland" and "world city" from which to cultivate appreciation for the cultures of the Silk Road. He also pointed out Chicago's sister city connections with a number of other influential world cities, including New Delhi, Warsaw, Mexico City and Amman. The Amman connection is particularly fitting, he noted, because the idea of the Silk Road Project came to him following a 1994 dinner in the Jordanian capital with that country's king and queen. Ma, who's visited Israel "many, many times" in the past two decades, had just arrived from Jerusalem after performing at the signing of the Israeli-Jordanian peace treaty. On a subsequent trip to Petra, the ancient tax center in southern Jordan, Ma found himself taken by the idea of the city as one end of a massive mixing of cultures that had as its center China, his family's own homeland. The result was the creation of the Silk Road Project, which studies and observes the culture exchanges that took place along the long trade route. A past guest of the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra, Ma maintains a number of connections with Israel, including with famed Israeli conductor Daniel Barenboim. Ma was guided very early in his career by Isaac Stern, the famed American violinist and fixture at Israeli classical music concerts who helped forge the link between Ma and the IPO. Calling Stern "one of my really great heroes," Ma warmly recalls the master classes he taught for aspiring Israeli musicians in Jerusalem and said Monday he was excited for a master class he would teach the following day for Tel Aviv University's student orchestra. He enjoys working with the next generation of musicians, he says, drawing a parallel between musical exchanges in the classroom and the kinds of cultural interactions examined by the Silk Road Project. Such exchanges also played an important role in Ma's own family history. His father, a musician who encouraged Ma's musical development early on, left China for Paris in 1936, living out the war under Nazi occupation before bringing his family to New York City in 1962. Commenting on the crucial role World War II played in Israel's own history, Ma points to the political violence that began in China in the early 1930s before reflecting that, "in a way, [my] father lived through World War II in two places. It's my background, even though I was born in 1955, and it was the big unknown I always tried to understand for myself." He begins to expand on the point - perhaps this isn't something he's been asked about recently - but he's almost immediately interrupted by one of his handlers. It is, she points out politely but firmly, time for his next interview.