Yo-Yo Ma bringing 'Day of Action' to Pittsfield Common

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PITTSFIELD — First, it was the Boston Symphony Orchestra coming to the Pittsfield Common. Now, it's Yo-Yo Ma.

On Aug. 10, the world-renowned cellist and part-time Berkshire resident will host a "Day of Action" on the Common as part of his ongoing Bach Project tour. The event will gather local leaders and organizations to build 36 wooden tables and discuss the concept of a resilient community.

A day later, Ma will play Johann Sebastian Bach's six suites for unaccompanied cello during a Sunday night concert at Tanglewood's Koussevitzky Music Shed. Ma hopes that the two events can help create a bridge between communities within the Berkshires.

"It's wonderful because you can link some of the treasures and resources to one another," he told The Eagle by phone Wednesday. "I think of Pittsfield as a treasure, and I think of Tanglewood as a treasure."

While the Day of Action is part of Ma's broader mission to explore how culture connects humanity in 36 locations on six continents, the Pittsfield edition also will celebrate the city's long history of "making things" and its recent progress, he said.

"[Pittsfield], I think, is experiencing a renewed sense of identity right now," Ma said, adding that he has met many people who "are incredibly loyal and believe in the city."

The tables are not only intended to honor Pittsfield's history of making, but also to foster important conversations.

"What happens when you have a common table? Well, people start to talk," said Ma, who is a member of The Berkshire Eagle's advisory board.

Representatives from the Berkshire Immigrant Center, Central Berkshire Habitat for Humanity, Roots Rising, Berkshire Music School, Berkshire United Way and Construct Inc. are among those who will assemble the tables, event producer Paul Heck said, and the finished products will go to many local groups. Berkshire Woodworkers Guild members will be on-site to assist with the project; members Scott Brockway and Peter Gagliardi are handling much of the part-marking and other initial work on the tables in preparation for the event.

The tables will be inscribed with messages from the public. Heck is asking locals, via email, to finish the prompt, "The Berkshires Make ... ." The best 36 answers will be featured on the tables.

During the Day of Action, which will run from 9 a.m. through midafternoon, participants will take breaks to listen to discussions with community representatives. The first panel will include The Berkshire Eagle's community engagement editor and education reporter, Jenn Smith, as well as Roots Rising co-directors Jessica Vecchia and Jamie Samowitz. The second will feature author Ty Allan Jackson, architect Tessa Kelly and Ma. The event also will involve some tree planting, and will close with an ice cream social, the goods donated by SoCo Creamery.

Throughout the gathering, an Andy Wrba-curated lineup of local musicians will perform. Ma isn't scheduled to play a concert, but he's not ruling out participating if the right opportunity presents itself.

"That's the whole idea," he said.

The event comes three weeks after the BSO held "Tanglewood in the City" at the park, during which a live performance was streamed on a 15-by-27-foot screen as a way to bring Tanglewood into the community and share a major BSO concert with a wider group of Berkshire residents.

Pittsfield Mayor Linda Tyer believes that the Day of Action will build community spirit, bringing together diverse groups in a park she calls a city "gem."

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"I consider it an honor that Yo-Yo Ma chose Pittsfield," she said by phone.

Since August 2018, the Bach Project has been visiting major cities around the world, such as Vienna, Mexico City and Washington, D.C. In April, Ma performed near the U.S.-Mexico border in Laredo, Texas, and Nuevo Laredo, Mexico.

"As you all know, as you did and do and will do, in culture, we build bridges, not walls," Ma said during that trip, per NPR.

Immigration, harm reduction and economic development are among the topics that might be raised during talks about building resilient communities. For Ma, it's essential that Pittsfield and the rest of the county is strong throughout the year, not just during the height of the summer cultural season.

"As with many parts of the United States, when you're not in a large urban area, what happens when tourist season is over?" Ma said.

Culture still can spur revival when the temperature drops, though.

"What I treasure in music and the arts is that when people come together and actually share in their knowledge, you get a lot of creativity," Ma said. "But that only happens when everybody participates."

Ma certainly is privy to some of the cultural experiences in the Berkshires. In 2016, for instance, he moderated a discussion organized by The Eagle and the BSO on Tanglewood's campus that highlighted a divide between the northern and southern parts of the county.

Concern for others and an insatiable curiosity continue to guide Ma at this stage of his life and career.

"I continuously am trying to learn things," he said. "I can only do that when I listen to what people have to say or read what people have to say."

Bach still enlightens Ma. The cellist long has admired the famous Baroque composer, appreciating Bach's ability to simultaneously convey an analytical, objective worldview and an empathetic, sympathetic one.

"What makes Bach special to me is, he does both. It's really hard to do both," Ma said.

Ma learned Bach's unaccompanied cello suites shortly after learning to play the instrument at age 4. He recorded them for the first time in 1983. In 1997, he released new versions in "Inspired by Bach," and 2018 brought "Six Evolutions."

Now, by playing the solo suites that have helped him rise to the top of the classical music world on stages around the world, Ma knows that he can convene the masses and thus facilitate conversations about vital social issues.

"This is the best of what I can do," he said.

Benjamin Cassidy can be reached at bcassidy@berkshireeagle.com, at @bybencassidy on Twitter and 413-496-6251.


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