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Yo-Yo Ma: Crossing community and cultural boundaries

He is a part of this community’s fabric: He has a second home in the Berkshires and performs every summer at Tanglewood. For those who have connected with him at the village post office, or in a coffee shop in West Stockbridge, a market in Great Barrington, a gala in Lenox, and for those who have listened to him play in another land, seen him interviewed on TV, or heard him on the radio, there’s one thing that runs true and deep: Yo-Yo Ma is committed to connecting cultures and people, both locally and globally.

His latest project brings him home, to the Berkshires, and the preparations are already well underway. This will be the 18th location in his two-year global initiative, “The Bach Project,” encompassing performances he is giving of Johann Sebastian Bach’s six suites for solo cello across six continents, accompanied by a Day of Action, in which he meets with local artists, com-munity leaders, activists and students.

He will be halfway to his goal of 36 locations when he comes to the Berkshires on August 10 for its Day of Action in Pittsfield. Each location is not unique, Ma says. In fact, there are common threads, common chords and discords among many cultures he has visited. “Whether you’re dealing with gentrification issues or immigration issues or refugees, or health issues, food crisis, there are people all around the world that are actually trying to solve the same issues,” Ma told me, as he planned for Chicago and Athens, Greece, before coming here.

The theme for this Day of Action is the culture of making and the way that relates to community strength, resiliency, and opportunity. Residents will come together in Pittsfield to make 25 to 35 wooden tables and benches with wood sourced from the region. Those tables will be used for some sort of communal celebration, where the builders will continue their dialogues. The goal is to join in a local and global conversation about culture, how it connects us, and how we can build a better society.

On August 11, the day following the Day of Action, Ma will perform all six of Bach’s suites for unaccompanied cello at Tanglewood. A portion of the seating for that concert will be set aside for some Day of Action participants. (You can catch him earlier at Tanglewood when he leads a Bach Cello Suites class on July 31, then an all-Beethoven program on August 6 with pianist Emanuel Ax and violinist Leonidas Kavakos.)

“I have a pretty broad view of culture—from making tables to sitting at a table, to making music, to dancing, to cooking, to science and astronomy,” says Ma. “Everything that we have invented allows us to understand better who we are, who we all are, where we live, and what the world is made of. Without that understanding, whatever we build is going to fall apart.”

What Ma brings is his belief that culture will lead to healing and moving forward, economically and socially. In the weeks leading up to this Day of Action in Pittsfield, conversations have been happening about the environment and about our communities.

“You know the phrase of the longest journey begins with the first step?” says Ma, as he begins talking about this journey that has brought him to cities like Washington, D.C.; Lima, Peru; and the bordered sister cities of Laredo, Texas, and Nuevo Laredo, Mexico. It’s not only about connecting people within communities, he says, but also connecting communities across the world. 

“I can tell you in Bombay, they go through the same things that we are going through in the Berkshires or in Taiwan or Vienna. We think, oh, Vienna it is so different. No, it used to be the capital of an empire, but guess what? Pittsfield was the capital of a whole region.”

His own personal journey began at age seven, when his family moved from France to the United States. “Anything that I have done, from emigrating to performing, requires a huge amount of discomfort. So let’s try and do this with my calling card, which is as a cellist, playing six Bach suites, this monumental work. It’s the hardest thing to do for a solo instrument. It is my calling card to say, hey, this is the best that I can offer. Let’s sit down and talk.”

Ma isn’t alone in this monumental endeavor. He has his team and an artistic partner on the ground in the Berkshires, Hancock Shaker Village, and its director, Jennifer Trainer, who has known Ma for a number of years. The Shakers settled in West Pittsfield in 1783, making furniture—tables—that were not only functional, but also expressed values: simplicity, integrity, hard work, and communal effort.

Ma’s team came to Pittsfield in the spring to talk to Trainer and look at different locations, and form a core group of “thought partners” who would consider how to cast the net to bring together as many makers as possible—from woodworkers to electricians to artists to farmers to community navigators.

Ma’s team came to Pittsfield in the spring to talk to Trainer and look at different location sites. His partnerships have grown.

“If there is one things I have learned about the Berkshires, it’s that we love being in the Berkshires,” says Ma. “We love that we know what the treasures are in this area and we want to keep them. The Berkshires is one of the magical places in the world. It is my psychological home. It is a place that has everything. The people are great, the people are inventive, the people care about nature, the people work hard. Traditions abound. There is a lot of talent that is built into the population. And the land, my goodness, it’s magical.”

For some in the community, such as Ma, the farm to tablers, museum visitors, craftspeople, the summer cultural crowd, this Day of Action concept is appealing out of the gate. But a key goal is to make the day relevant to year-round Pittsfield residents, knowing that everyone is part of the cultural identity of their city, and that bringing this cultural event to a broader swath of the community is what will make this meaningful. And fun. Organizers are talking about music, food, maybe even a mural painting project. At one neighborhood meeting, someone speculated that maybe Kids 4 Harmony could play with Ma while others are building tables. The momentum and excitement around the day is gathering.

In addition to Hancock Shaker Village, other partners in the planning include Gwendolyn VanSant of Multicultural BRIDGE, Shirley Edgerton, Pittsfield architect Tessa Kelly, author Ty Allan Jackson, Carrie Holland from Mill Town Capital, Tim Weisman of Zion Lutheran Church, Jen Glockner of Cultural Pittsfield, Mitch and Seth Nash from Blue Q, and others. Sixty organizations have been identified to participate in the build project, including Youth Alive, representatives from the Christian Center, Roots Rising, Habitat for Humanity,  EX-CELL Youth Mentoring, and many others. The site where the tables will be built is still being determined, but it will be centrally located, within walking distance to neighborhoods. Locations being discussed include The First Street Common, Tyler Street Lab’s adjacent parking lot (Morningside neighborhood), and Durant Park (Westside neighborhood). With a Shaker-influenced design, the table building will be overseen by the Naked Table Project, which brings together people by making tables by hand from locally grown trees.

There’s already talk of what will happen to the tables made on August 10. “I’d love them to be like the seeds of the Shaker gardens, which are still making their way in the community 200 years later through the annual seed exchange with the Berkshire Athenaeum,” says Trainer. “We want the tables to end up where people want and can use them—in neighborhoods, parks, and community centers.”

 “The way I look at Pittsfield, its role nationally or internationally, is that it is emblematic of small American dis-invested, de-industrialized cities,” says Kelly. “At least for a generation, Pittsfield has been at a loss for its identity. Now we’re in an exciting moment because many players are coming together to discuss what we want our city to look at.”

The stark reality is that in some Pittsfield neighborhoods, 40 percent of households live below poverty line. There is a movement to address that statistic as neighborhood groups become organized and reach out for support and collaboration. Kelly is working on the architecture and community planning pieces of the Westside Riverway Park and has been involved in the Westside Neighborhood Initiative, Morningside Neighborhood Initiative, and Working Cities, whose mission is to build bridges out of poverty. Kelly presented the Day of Action project to a Working Cities meeting, and people were inspired. At Third Thursday and other community events, Day of Action organizers are polling residents about what they love about and hope for Pittsfield, and researching ways to place words onto the tables, both to memorialize the thoughts and to enable groups to connect with what they’re making. Other activities on this Day of Action include a talk or a workshop and conversation.

What Ma brings to the table is his name and his team to make a meaningful event so that participants collaborate and are mindful that the Day of Action is a celebration of the community. “Ma realizes that culture has the power to connect people, that it can help us solve problems and imagine innovations,” says Trainer. “Yo-Yo tries to find the meaningful conversation wherever he goes, to connect people who are doing good work, and to get others thinking about it.  Pittsfield is typical of many post-industrial cities trying to redefine themselves and find their way, and he cares.” 

Kelly adds: “To dedicate a Day of Action to this kind of place has the potential to talk about what a lot of American cities this size are going through right now: using culture or community or shared vision to figure out their next steps.” To live in a city that is partially vacated requires people to think about how they will fill that void: What is the next identity for a city that had such a singular identify? The coming together of all these voices presents an opportunity of a more inclusive identify of Pittsfield, she says. “As we continue to develop our urban fabric in the present day, we must be mindful of the elements of Pittsfield’s built formation and cultural legacy that remain unique and important.”

Why not another community to represent all this? “Why not the Berkshires?” says Ma. “It is not only home. If I think of the history of the United States, it is right here. This is a culture of makers. Whether you are making furniture, or you are making houses, or you are making literature, or you are making music, you’re making things. It is a very creative place that is not only has had an extraordinary local population, but it is also been a place where those from the outside have been drawn to—to live, to participate.”

Still, people, especially young adults, leave to look for full-time jobs elsewhere. The same can be said about other communities around the world. “In Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria, ten percent of the population left,” says Ma. “And it’s all the things we are talking about: jobs, young people, debt, the debt that Puerto Rico has. I am about to go to Athens, and look at the debt that Greece has. Southern Spain, 40 percent unemployment. It is always the same things, if you look at it deeply enough. It is about how a community seeks to survive with the strength and the values they have and how they deal with adversity. In Chile, it is earthquakes. It happens regularly, so that is their norm. In each country, in each locality, it is about finding the thing that works.”

And so, Ma is using his stature, his monumental musicianship, to bring attention to these challenges, connecting people not only to support and celebrate one another, but also to work together toward solutions. That’s what he hopes will happen on this Day of Action in Pittsfield. “The idea of the table for so many people is that’s where culture happens because culture is food. Culture is conversation at the table. Whether we are making the table or sitting at the table, we’re actually in the process of communing with one another.”




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