Looking at the Valley through Yo-Yo Ma’s eyes

Gray Areas

Sometimes it helps to have an outsider’s perspective.

I always loved the movies of Milos Forman. The Czech immigrant made several quintessentially American films in his career — “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest,” “Hair,” “Ragtime,” “The People vs. Larry Flynt.” One of the reasons his films were so effective is he saw and appreciated aspects of American culture that native-born citizens took for granted.

This week it was illuminating to see the Mahoning Valley through Yo-Yo Ma’s eyes.

The renowned cellist talked about the accomplishments he could see in the Warren-Youngstown area and the potential for greater ones. During an interview before his concert Monday at the Warren Community Amphitheatre, Ma talked about how impressed he was with how the arts organizations, elected officials, the faith community and business leaders all seem to be working toward a common goal of revitalizing the area and recognizing the importance of arts and culture to achieve it.

On the inside, we see the sharp elbows that can be exchanged when financially struggling groups try to protect their turf and compete for the same shrinking pool of grants and donors. The skirmishes tend to overshadow the accomplishments when multiple factions come together through the work of the Fine Arts County of Trumbull County, through the efforts of the Any Given Child initiative or Power of the Arts, through events like Warren Homecoming.

Ma came across as honest and genuine as he talked about what he saw and what he hopes to accomplish on these community days of action planned around his 36-date solo tour of Johann Sebastian Bach’s Cello Suites.

He has nothing to gain by doing what he’s doing, at least not by the metrics we normally use to measure “gain.” He’s already the biggest name in classical music today. These community visits aren’t going to increase his fame or increase the fees he already can command as an in-demand soloist and guest artist.

Performing the Bach Cello Suites is incredibly challenging — two-plus hours on stage without an intermission or any other musicians. And unlike Bruce Springsteen, Neil Young and the guys I normally write about, Ma can’t get away with just playing G, C and D chords for long stretches. No one would blame him if he spent the day after those performances getting a massage and taking a long soak.

Instead, he’s meeting with people from diverse backgrounds. He’s playing free concerts in nontraditional spaces and using his celebrity to shine a spotlight on what others are accomplishing and exploring ways to help them accomplish more.

If I want to focus on the negative Monday at the amphitheater, I can pick out the woman on the grass near me who stood recording Ma’s performance on her cellphone while simultaneously talking nonstop to the person next to her. Wow, can’t wait to watch that video — Ma and the orchestra recorded from an obstructed angle visually with her prattling on over the music.

Instead, I want to look at it through Ma’s eyes and see the thousands who took advantage of this amazing opportunity, rushing to the Amp right after work and not being discouraged by the threat of thunderstorms that never materialized, at least not over downtown Warren. They were mesmerized and appreciative, greeting Ma and the other musicians with several long, loud ovations.

I want to see the hundreds (thousands?) who may have been hearing the Warren and Youngstown orchestras for the first time and who I hope will make an effort to see the ensembles during their 2018-19 seasons. Judging from the comments I’ve heard, many of those people also will make an effort to go see Howard Howell & the Point Five Band, Arielle Green and Darrius Simmons (the local artists who opened for Ma and the orchestra) when given an opportunity.

There were enough young children in the crowd that I’m sure one of them turned to a parent Monday and said, “I want to learn how to play one of those,” pointing to a cello, a violin or one of the other instruments on stage.

We look pretty good through Yo-Yo Ma’s eyes. We should use them more often.

Andy Gray is the entertainment writer for the Tribune Chronicle. Write to him at agray@tribtoday.com

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