Yo-Yo Ma to speak at commencement

Williams College recently announced that Yo-Yo Ma, an accomplished and internationally known cellist, will speak at this year’s commencement exercises on June 7. Williams’s 209th Commencement will take place on West College Lawn beginning at 10 a.m.

According to News Director Joe Procter, “Yo-Yo Ma is one of the most sought-after cellists of our time and has appeared as soloist with orchestras or in recitals and chamber music activities in all the music capitals of the world.”

Born in Paris in 1955, Ma has played the cello since the age of four, and gave his first public recital at age five. He later studied at The Julliard School in New York City under the direction of Leonard Rose and went on to earn a B.A. from Harvard in 1976.

Ma has distinguished himself not only as a cellist, but also as an innovator. He has taken several cornerstones of his repertoire, namely J.S. Bach’s Suites for Unaccompanied Cello, and experimented with them.

“Over the past few years,” writes Procter, “stimulated by Albert Schweitzer’s description of the pictorial element in Bach’s works, Yo-Yo Ma has re-explored this music alongside creative arts from a variety of disciplines. The results of this collaboration with artists from wide-ranging disciplines have been captured in a series of films—one for each suite—entitled ‘Inspired by Bach.’”

In addition to musical experimentation, Ma has also committed himself to performing relatively unrecognized music from the 20th century. He enjoys playing selections from many contemporary American composers, ranging from Stephen Albert to Peter Lieberson to John Williams.

The diversity of Ma’s repertoire does not end with these selections. In an effort “to understand and demonstrate how music serves as a means of communication in both Western and non-Western cultures,” Ma has explored and studied native Chinese music and its various instruments, as well as the music of the Kalahari bush people of Africa.

President of the College Harry C. Payne said, “We thought that Yo-Yo Ma would be a wonderful speaker to have at graduation. He has ties to the area. He performs frequently at Tanglewood, he claims to have recorded on the steps of Chapin Hall, and his father-in-law graduated from Williams.

We are very happy to have such a distinguished musician speaking at commencement. He often books his performances two or three years in advance, so for us to get him it’s a treat.”

In the words of Procter, “He is committed not only to bringing young audiences into contact with music but allowing them to participate in the creation of music.”

Ma was chosen by the Honorary Degrees Committee.

According to Director of Public Affairs James Kolesar, “Annually the president invites the entire community to make nominations of people who represent distinction in their particular field of endeavor.”

It is the committee’s task to choose who among those nominated will receive honorary degrees from Williams.

They look to award degrees to recipients from a variety of fields, from the arts and sciences, in the public and private spheres, in the business and philanthropic worlds.

The committee then chooses by consensus, among the honorary award recipients someone “to speak at the main commencement ceremony who is thought to have particularly interesting ideas and ways of expressing them.”

In recent years, Williams Commencement speakers have included former President George Bush, writer Grace Paley, musician and civil rights activist Bernice Johnson Reagon, museum curator J. Kirk Varnedoe, television journalist Jim Lehrer, and historian John Hope Franklin.