Describing himself as a "venture culturalist," Yo-Yo Ma has a musical appetite as wide as the world. He's fearless in the face of Bach, bluegrass or bossa nova, but Monday night he tried on yet another hat, delivering the Nancy Hanks Lecture on Arts and Public Policy at Washington, D.C.'s Kennedy Center concert hall. (See the archived video of the event on this page.)
Ma isn't generally regarded as a policy wonk, but there he was, confident before an enthusiastic crowd, citing stats about global CEOs and quoting from the National Educational Longitudinal Study.
Typically, Ma had his cello at hand, as well as a diverse array of musicians to help make his case. And, though he titled his speech "Art for Life's Sake," it was, in fact, a point he made early on about diversity that seemed most potent. He called it "the edge effect" and introduced it with a biology metaphor:
Let's take my favorite example of creativity from science. In ecology, where two ecosystems meet, such as the forest and the savannah, the point of intersection is the site of "edge effect." In that transition zone, because of the influence the two ecological communities have on each other, you find the greatest diversity of life, as well as the greatest number of new life forms.
And with that, he recalled his own melting-pot experience as a kid, moving from Paris to New York, and demonstrated his "edge effect" by accompanying the 23-year-old jookin dancer Lil' Buck to Saint-Saens' The Swan. A video of the two collaborating several years ago went viral.
Ma also welcomed a ferociously talented Galician bagpiper named Cristina Pato and performed Levon Helm's "Wide River to Cross" alongside a group of injured U.S. veterans from the MusiCorps program, associated with Walter Reed National Military Medical Center.
"The edge effect," Ma said, "is where those of varied backgrounds come together in a zone of transition; a region of less structure, more diversity and more possibility. The edge is a time and place of transformation and movement."
Not surprisingly, education was another strong theme in the speech. Ma pointed out that all the recent talk about STEM — a focus on teaching science, technology, engineering and math — should really be about STEAM, adding arts to both the mix and the acronym.
Near the end of the lecture, Ma summed up what he called his "three big ideas."
1. Societies are powered by three engines: politics, economics and culture. A vibrant society exists when all three engines are firing and intersecting, resulting in a populace that is energized, engaged and fulfilled.
2. Our collective work in the arts is not just relevant, but essential to strengthening our culture and positively influencing society. Thus: "Art for Life's Sake."
3. The arts are the way to foster the four critical skills necessary for our children to succeed in the 21st-century workforce: collaboration, flexibility, imagination, innovation.
Ma's lecture marked a high point for Arts Advocacy Day, sponsored by Americans for the Arts, the national organization supporting the arts and culture. Activities spilled over on Capitol Hill Tuesday morning, including the Congressional Arts Caucus, where Ma was joined by former Guns N' Roses drummer Matt Sorum and politicos like Ways and Means Committee member Rep. John Lewis and Joan Shigegawa, acting chair of the NEA.
(You can read a transcript of Yo-Yo Ma's speech at Americans for the Arts.)