Last weekend, I found myself at the most moving musical performance I’ve ever seen. It was completely unexpected.
It happened at the Aspen Ideas Festival. Please don’t roll your eyes at the thought of a Rocky Mountain version of Davos Man, that species of climber who jets to hard-to-reach places for frenzied networking, chilled chardonnay and competitive tweeting, all under the cover of intellectual edification. The heaviest lift of the day was deciding between “What Can Iraq Tell Us About the Future of Democracy in the Middle East?” and “The 21st Century Diplomatic Toolbox: Soft Power, Economic Statecraft, and Technology.”
As I was weighing those options, grace intervened. On Friday morning, I decided against opening my mind to world peace and instead opened my eyes and ears to Yo-Yo Ma, the world’s foremost cellist, who was appearing on a panel with the humdrum title “Arts, Veterans, and Health Care.”
One reason to go was that I’d missed Ma’s performance at the opening session. Friday’s session wouldn’t be an encore. Ma would be just one of four panelists answering a moderator’s questions, Aspen’s regulation format.
Still, Ma on any subject is better than a fellow from the Council on Foreign Relations. At the session, much of the talking was left to a U.S. Marine, Lance Cpl. Timothy Donley. He had been a guitar player until February 2012, when an improvised explosive device in Afghanistan took both legs, depriving him of a lap, and maimed an arm. Instead, thanks to Ma and Musicorps, a group of volunteer professional musicians, Donley began singing with the famed cellist last year as he was recovering at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center.
For Donley, who had locked himself away upon his return from Afghanistan, performing with Ma has been part of a long journey back to life, one without the career he planned or the family he hoped to have. At times, he thought he couldn’t go on and resisted the extended hand of professional musicians who wanted to help. After many pleas, he finally said yes, began voice lessons, and his despair began to lift.
Ma was on the panel because of his decision to use his gift to do more than fill concert halls around the globe. Healing through music is why he’s now as likely to be playing in Danville, Ky., and Akron, Ohio, as in Paris or Rome. As part of Musicorps — founded by the composer Arthur Bloom, who was also on stage — Ma helps give injured veterans something to live for through music. The group has done wonders with state-of-the-art prosthetics that allow a pianist who has lost a hand to play Beethoven.
Ma’s been playing for 53 years — his “tiger parents” started his lessons at age 4. By age 7, he had played for President John F. Kennedy. As he entered middle age (here in the story, he pats his potbelly), he realized he could keep amassing wealth and honors — including 16 Grammys, the Glenn Gould Prize and the Presidential Medal of Freedom — or he could expand his commitment to helping others. He founded the Silk Road Project Inc., which supports integrating art into life, a goal he also is pursuing as the 2013 artist-in-residence at the Aspen Institute.
This is how Ma found himself in a small auditorium in Aspen, sitting in a straight-backed chair, having discovered in the second half of his life a much deeper level of happiness. At the end of the discussion, Ma took up his cello, Bloom moved over to a piano and Donley wheeled himself to the microphone. Ma played “America the Beautiful,” Donley sang the second verse in his strong tenor voice, and then the audience joined in.
There is still a lot of pain in Donley’s life. But today he feels richer than any Davos Man: “I’m a 21-year-old kid on stage with Yo-Yo Ma, right? How much better does it get?”
When the music stopped, there was a pause as the audience swallowed its tears, and then a standing ovation — for Donley for thriving, for Ma for playing, and for themselves for having the good fortune to witness a moment of such unexpected joy.