Yo-Yo Ma delivers an electrifying performance at RedLine in Denver.EXPAND
Yo-Yo Ma delivers an electrifying performance at RedLine in Denver.
Tristan Niskanen

Yo-Yo Ma Toured Denver, Offering Empathy and Building Community

On Thursday, August 2, the day after world-renowned cellist Yo-Yo Ma made his Red Rocks debut, he teamed up with a slew of organizations and people across Denver-area neighborhoods to talk about community.

While most other musicians come to a city, play and leave, Ma has used his 36-city, two-year tour as a chance to use his star power to help community organizations working to improve their neighborhoods.

Isaac Slade (center), Yo-Yo Ma, Cleo Parker Robinson, Governor John Hickenlooper and music students at Civic Center Park.EXPAND
Isaac Slade (center), Yo-Yo Ma, Cleo Parker Robinson, Governor John Hickenlooper and music students at Civic Center Park.
Tristan Niskanen

His day started with a performance at Civic Center Park, with student musicians from Hamilton Middle School and Isaac Slade of the Fray. Governor John Hickenlooper then welcomed Ma and an audience of about 100 people with a speech.

"Part of culture is also place," Hickenlooper said. "I talk about the importance of loving where you are, expressing that love, creating a place that you're proud of — and that is a foundation on which culture gets erected."

Hickenlooper touted his program, Take Note Colorado, which works to ensure that every student in kindergarten through twelfth grade has access to an instrument and music education. It's an ambitious project that he co-chairs with Slade.

Yo-Yo Ma welcomes the crowd.EXPAND
Yo-Yo Ma welcomes the crowd.
Tristan Niskanen

After delivering a vivacious solo performance at Civic Center Park, Ma drove across town to the heart of Aurora's Cultural Arts District to briefly attend a series of open conversations about refugees living in Aurora.

With a grin on his face, he then journeyed to Westwood to visit Re:Vision, a nonprofit using art and gardening to build economic power in the largely Latino neighborhood, where residents are concerned about the effects of impending gentrification.

Ma toured Re:Vision's buildings and community gardens, where he helped pick carrots and enjoyed a farm-to-table meal.

To beat the heat, somebody gave Ma a hat and a bolo tie to complete his performance.EXPAND
To beat the heat, somebody gave Ma a hat and a bolo tie to complete his performance.
Tristan Niskanen

Afterward, Ma talked about his work as a United Nations Messenger of Peace, noting that it's his job to learn how communities are working together to build a better world; again, he offered up a performance.

Ma takes on modern art and his mighty sword (or bow).EXPAND
Ma takes on modern art and his mighty sword (or bow).
Tristan Niskanen

Then he headed to RedLine, the nonprofit contemporary art center in Five Points, where a largely white crowd was gathered in the historically African-American neighborhood. Deputy director Robin Gallite led a conversation around the topic of what provides a sense of home. RedLine has a long history of arts activism, and the center is located in an area where many people are homeless.

Ma speaks with a homeless man before bringing him on stage.EXPAND
Ma speaks with a homeless man before bringing him on stage.
Tristan Niskanen

As Ma began to speak, a homeless man interrupted. "Everybody don't like homeless people, but ain't nobody been here where the homeless people are at. How can you help?" he repeated a few times. Gallite tried to refocus the crowd's attention.

As people whispered uncomfortably, Ma pulled the man aside and talked with him for a minute before giving him the stage and a chance to speak to the crowd for a few minutes. After respectfully guiding him off stage, Ma said, "As human beings, we have the capacity to imagine. To imagine what it's like to be homeless. To be without support. We've all been through moments of that. All we need to do is capture those various moments and put one on top of the other. When we learn from what we've experienced, we have the capacity to develop empathy."

After his talk, he took to the stage inside an unused tiny home — part of a collaboration between Colorado Village Collaborative and RedLine — where he played "Unaccompanied Cello Suite No. 1 in G Major, 1: Prelude."

As Ma played, resident artists at Redline performed in sumo suits littered with price tags, critiquing consumer culture; Ma joined in on the fun by making silly faces and even hitting a beach ball with his cello bow.

Huitzilopochtli leads the community in Aztec ritual.EXPAND
Huitzilopochtli leads the community in Aztec ritual.
Tristan Niskanen

The day climaxed at the This Is Home block party, where people gathered in Mariposa Plaza, outside the music education nonprofit Youth on Record, enjoying music, poetry, performances. The Aztec dance troupe Huitzilopochtli led the crowd in a ritual dance. Wheelchair Sports Camp rocked the stage, and once again, Ma took out his cello and played.

Wheelchair Sports Camp rocks the crowd.EXPAND
Wheelchair Sports Camp rocks the crowd.
Tristan Niskanen

Throughout the day, Ma offered many words of wisdom about transforming art into action. Among them, he said, "Empathy is something that can be taught. It's also a gift. As well as imagination, it's one of the hardest things to do since we're dealing with an artistic environment — to take an idea of something and to actually physicalize it."

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