Don't let the 16 Grammy Awards fool you. Cellist Yo-Yo Ma perhaps the best-known classical musician of our time felt humbled when he was presented with the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Barack Obama last month.
"It's a real humanizing moment," Ma said in a phone interview recently, recalling the ceremony during which he was one of 15 people who received the award. "You get to spend a couple of hours with amazing individuals who have all worked for the greater good. What a rich tapestry we have in this country of people who are trying to do things."
A tapestry might just be the best metaphor for Ma's Silk Road Project. Part nonprofit education initiative, part performing ensemble, the Silk Road Project serves as Ma's artistic vehicle to foster a greater understanding of world cultures.
Ma and the Silk Road Ensemble play the University of Texas' Bass Concert Hall Monday, part of a national tour.
Ma found inspiration for his endeavor from the historic silk road, the network of trade routes that for centuries connected East with West, traversing the Asian continent, the Middle East, Northeast Africa and Mediterranean Europe.
The ensemble brings together a changing lineup of musicians skilled on instruments that originate in the cultures along the silk road: among others, the gaita (Galicianagpipe), the oud, the kamancheh (Persian spike fiddle), the bawu (Chinese free-reed wind instrument) along with the violin, viola and, of course, the cello, the instrument that made Ma famous. The ensemble plays from a repertoire of modernized versions of traditional music and new cross-cultural music it has commissioned. Its fifth CD, "Off the Map," was nominated for a 2010 Grammy Award for Best Classical Crossover Album.
The current song list speaks to the Silk Road Project's multicultural mashup. Among other pieces, there's the world premiere of Latin Grammy winner Gabriela Lena Frank's "¡Chayraq!: Rough Guide to a Modern Day Tawantinsuyu," which draws on the composer's mixed Peruvian and Chinese heritage. And then there's a ninth-century Buddhist melody re-imagined by pipa (Chinese lute) player Wu Man.
Don't expect Ma to be in the lead, though. The 55-year-old cellist — who has more than 75 CDs to his credit — ratchets down the star wattage when playing with the Silk Road Ensemble. He's just another musician in the band. But Ma's got a message: world understanding through music.
"Globalization is frightening for a lot of people, it's a struggle," he says. "But music can transport someone into another world and hopefully that can lead to different ways of thinking."
"If you can make many things on this planet yours, then (those things) are no longer to be feared."
The Silk Road Ensemble with Yo-Yo Ma
When: 8 p.m. Monday
Where: Bass Concert Hall, UT campus
Information: 477-6060, www.texasperforming arts.org