Yo-Yo Ma on the Kennedy Center as the Nation’s Platform for the Arts

From the Lecture Series: The Great Tours—Washington, D.C.

By Richard Kurin, Ph.D., The Smithsonian

Yo-Yo Ma, one of the world’s greatest living musicians, has maintained a relationship with the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C. and was appointed as an Artistic Advisor at Large. He managed to make some time to talk to us about the Kennedy Center and its importance in the arts.

Yo Yo Ma performing
Yo Yo Ma performs at the World Economic Forum’s annual meeting in 2008. (Image: World Economic Forum from Cologny, Switzerland/Public domain)

Richard Kurin: Your history with the Kennedy Center goes back a really long way—in fact, before there was a Kennedy Center! Tell us about that.

Yo-Yo Ma: Well, that is in fact true. As a young immigrant of seven years old, I was taken to play for Pablo Casals, who was invited to play the first benefit concert that would eventually become the Kennedy Center. He was in Puerto Rico and couldn’t come, so they did a live telecast—the first live telecast. And so they needed some young thing—cello person—and I was that person—my sister and I. So we played for that benefit concert that was hosted by Leonard Bernstein. But my favorite person that evening was Danny Kaye because he conducted the National Symphony, and he was hilarious. I thought I wanted to grow up to be Danny Kaye. And I failed miserably.

RK: And President Kennedy and Jackie Kennedy were there. President Eisenhower was there.

YM: That’s right. Who knew, right?

This is a transcript from the video series The Great Tours: Washington, D.C. Watch it now, on The Great Courses Plus.

RK: So, what do you think about the Kennedy Center? You served from before the beginning to now, where you become a Kennedy Center Honoree; you’re their ambassador. What do you think of the Kennedy Center and what it’s become?

John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington D.C.
(Image: Justin Fegan/Shutterstock)

Learn more about the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts

YM: Well, I think it is indeed the nation’s platform for the performing arts. And that’s what I think the Kennedy family wanted. It is a living memorial to President Kennedy, and the fact that they chose this center to be a performing arts center is indicative of the high esteem that the Kennedy administration held for the arts. And so if I remember correctly, President Kennedy and Mrs. Kennedy invited Pablo Casals to perform at the White House, which was one of the signifying events to say, “OK, we care.”

And to this day, the Performing Arts Center is run with an eye towards not just a great place in Washington, D.C., but really spread around the country in terms of whatever values and knowledge on how to produce and for educational purposes—they are all over the country. And I’m very proud of what the center’s doing.

RK: When you perform, I mean, you fill up the house. So, what’s your thinking over your own career. What are your memorable times at the Kennedy Center—things that really stick out, perhaps?

YM: Well, I think in so many ways it’s my history with my country, you know? So, from the age of seven until now—so it’s about 56 years—it’s been in one way or another part of my life. I think I remember playing there the night before the first Iraqi War started. The air was thick as a knife. I remember after the Pentagon was bombed after 9/11 being at the Kennedy Center, I remember—you know, there’s so many both moments of grief as well as celebration, as well as moments of doubt in our nation’s history. So, in many ways, it is a barometer of what happens in our world, in our nation’s capital.

Learn more about how artists have managed to convert the most terrible of human experiences into transcendent art

RK: What do you make of the idea of a nation and a nation’s capital encouraging arts and artistic creativity? We want to do it with young people. We want artists to feel that responsibility; they have something to offer. Do you find other artists do that as well and have that conscious intention?

YM: I think there’s so many artists today—and I’m meeting many of them—thinking about this because actually, we say artists are creators, they invent things, but we’re a nation of inventors. Humans are inventors. We invented all this stuff. But we invent in response to what is needed. So, in some ways, what is created is something that responds to need, that is in fact a service. An artistic experience is not a transaction. It’s not a business deal. It’s not a power play. It could be made into that, but the actual artistic experience is going from deep within one person’s imagination to another person’s deep imagination. If that’s successfully transferred, that’s culture; that passes generationally. This is when we have festivals. This is when we have rituals. That’s when you have Memorial Day. We just celebrated the 100th anniversary of Armistice Day at the end of World War I, which is a huge thing across the world because so much was lost. Culture helps remind us of what we stand to lose if we don’t watch out.

October, 1986: President Reagan Nancy Reagan Crown Prince Akihito and Crown Princess Michiko listen to Yo-Yo Ma perform in the Yellow Oval Room during a private dinner for Crown Prince Akihito of Japan (Image: White House Photo Office/Public domain)

RK: You’ve made a point in your own career, in your own musical choices, about combining—you haven’t been restricted. You’re doing a Bach repertoire now, but you’ve been—

YM: I’m very restricted. Very restricted.

RK: But you’ve expanded and explored the Silk Road, you’ve combined and explored African rhythms and things from Latin America, and you’ve combined with old-timey country music. You’ve done an amazing thing. You’re really a musical citizen of the world.

YM: Well, we all are citizens of the world in the sense that aren’t we all custodians of our world? Yes, we are patriots, absolutely. I think President Macron made this very good point is that patriotism is the antithesis of nationalism because patriotism is about something deeply, deeply felt that you give towards. And that’s very important. So, we have patriotism, but we also have a custodial relationship for our common home, and that includes climate, food, disasters, as well as the incredible inventions that people have made throughout the ages that we need to kind of take stock of.

Learn More: Literature and Music of the New South

RK: I think in that way, Washington has kind of embodied that. I think that was the ideal of Washington, certainly with people like Washington and Jefferson and others, who, whatever the issues of the day and they surely had them, nevertheless was this kind of optimistic vision of freedom, equality, opportunity, the creative nature of human beings, to somehow create a country that would provide a vehicle for doing that in this world. And I think, even though we’re a little older, Yo-Yo, I still wake up every day, I’m on the National Mall, and I look at that and I say it is a good day. Whatever the issues are, that optimism of our country and the kind of things that we stand for and that we hope for—they come true.

YM: Absolutely.

Common Questions About Yo-Yo Ma

Q: Is “Yo-Yo Ma” his real name?

Yo-Yo Ma is indeed the world-famous musician’s real name and the name he was given at birth. In Chinese, his name would be Ma Yo-yo since the family name comes first.

Q: How much does Yo-Yo Ma make?

Yo-Yo Ma’s net worth is $25 million. In addition to releasing 75 albums, he has performed for major companies and had his work featured in commercials and movie soundtracks.

Q: What is Yo-Yo Ma’s nationality?

Yo-Yo Ma is Taiwanese. He was born in France, but his family moved to New York City soon after.

Q: Can Yo-Yo Ma speak Chinese?

Yo-Yo Ma speaks Chinese and can also play traditional Eastern instruments such as the Mongolian morin khuur. He is deeply interested in exploring the intersection between Eastern and Western culture and encouraging others to do the same through such endeavors as the Silk Road Project, which unites musicians from a wide range of cultural backgrounds.

This article was updated on 8/03/2019

Keep Reading
Pierre Charles L’Enfant—The Architect of Washington, D.C.
How Washington, D.C. Came to Be
Who Built the Vietnam Memorial in Washington, D.C.?