Yo-Yo Ma makes music for all

Yo-Yo Ma
Chicago Sun-Times

By Alejandro Escalona

Students at Telpochcalli Elementary in Chicago’s Little Village neighborhood were excited because they knew a famous musician was going to perform at their school. And it took only a few minutes for the students to share the joy and enthusiasm of world-renowned cellist Yo-Yo Ma.

Their faces lit up with the magic of music, dance and poetry.

It is likely that many of the 300 students at the concert will always remember the day Ma came to play his cello at their school with a group of talented performers and to share his passion for the arts.

Ma not only played the cello, along with Gabriel Cabezas, a young and talented Chicago cellist, he sang “Stand By Me” with a group from the school.

Last Monday, Ma, creative consultant of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra; Damian Woetzel, a former star ballet dancer; Aaron Dworkin, a spoken-word artist, and Lil Buck, a hip-hop artist and choreographer, performed at Telpochcalli as part of the “Arts Strike” initiative.

Unveiled by Ma and Woetzel in 2010, “Arts Strike” seeks to bring celebrated artists to share the arts with students, educators and communities.

Ma and his team of professional performers could not have found a more receptive audience. Telpochcalli Elementary, a public school that works with the Chicago Arts Partnerships in Education, integrates the arts into academics. Telpochcalli, which means “young” in Nahuatl, a Uto-Aztecan language spoken in Mexico, promotes the arts among its mostly Mexican-American students.

The concert included music, dance, poetry and storytelling. The kids were in awe of the way Lil Buck stretched and moved his body following Ma’s music.

Two Telpochcalli students read a poem, “Bilingual Matters.”

Ma asked the audience members to raise their hands if they were bilingual. Many kids did.

“I’m bilingual, too,” Ma said. “I speak French and I can communicate with millions in France.”

The concert was a success. These kinds of initiatives ought to happen more often in low-income schools and communities. The Chicago Symphony Orchestra is admirably fulfilling its social role by taking its music to the neighborhoods. This year’s concert at Benito Juarez High School in Pilsen is one example.

Chicago’s premier cultural institutions should not wait to attract a more diverse audience to their concert halls, plays and exhibits. They need to bring the arts into the neighborhoods and establish partnerships with local artists, schools and business.

If not, the venerable cultural institutions of this cosmopolitan city run the risk of attracting smaller audiences because their core public tends to be white, affluent and older.

Their future deepens on being able to attract younger and more diverse audiences, which reflect the demographic changes of the metropolitan area of Chicago.

Ma’s concert at Telpochcalli is a wonderful blueprint.