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Yo-Yo Ma and friends try to bring the world together with music

For years, superstar cellist Yo-Yo Ma has had a pet project, bringing together East and West.

He works toward this goal through his Silk Road Project. The ancient Silk Road trade route brought together people from opposite ends of the earth. And the great cellist boldly wondered, what if music could do the same thing?

Watching “The Music of Strangers: Yo-Yo Ma and the Silk Road Ensemble,” you have to love him for his wide-eyed vision.

Imagine a great cellist walking humbly along, by himself, brooding, “Like everyone else, I think about figuring out how I fit in the world,” as Ma does in this documentary.

His modesty and generosity shine in this movie, in which he shares the limelight with a roster of musicians from various folk traditions around the world. (One of whom is Chinese pipa virtuoso Wu Man, who charmed Kleinhans Music Hall in 2014). There are stunning vistas of places like Venice, China and Istanbul.

On the less-than-pretty side, some musicians come from war-torn areas, and their stories tug at the heart. The harsh realities can make you question the movie’s central philosophies. Yo-Yo Ma and his friends believe that music can solve all the world’s problems. Alas, it’s just not true.

“Sometimes you can turn fear into joy.” And sometimes you can’t.

Same thing with “Can a piece of music stop a bullet?”

Still, why not take an hour and a half and share the dream? You have to smile, seeing people from around the world hugging, clowning, dancing together, drinking wine together. (If music can’t bring people together, wine can.)

Plus Yo-Yo Ma, in the middle of it all, is so utterly, disarmingly genuine.

Buffalo has had several glimpses of him, all of them memorable. News Critic Emeritus Herman Trotter told the story of how when Yo-Yo Ma’s solo turn was complete, he played in the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra’s cello section for the remainder of the concert – a rare thing in a virtuoso.

In 2013, opening the BPO’s season, he played a duet with BPO Music Director JoAnn Falletta. He also did a marvelous job of “selling” a modern piece, “Azul,” by Osvaldo Golijov.

While I could admire Golijov’s intent, I remember writing that the music did not do justice to Yo-Yo Ma’s virtuosity, or give a concrete idea of what makes him great. I could say the same for a lot of the music in this film. (Golijov appears in it, by the way.)

The Silk Road music is, however, infectious and fun. Folks say it makes them want to dance. And on the poignant side, the film raises concerns about preserving various nations’ individual music and instruments, some of which are in danger of disappearing.

Most importantly, the music has in Yo-Yo Ma a powerful and unique champion. He could play the Cellino and Barnes jingle and make it beautiful. In the film, as he plays a mournful line from God knows where, you have to stop in your tracks and listen.

“No East, no West. Just a globe,” one of his colleagues declares, eyes shining. That is what Yo-Yo Ma has been aiming for, reminding people that music is something all nations share.

If anyone can convince us, he can.


Movie Review

3 stars (out of 4)

Title: The Music of Strangers: Yo-Yo Ma and the Silk Road Ensemble

Starring: Yo-Yo Ma and friends

Director: Morgan Neville

Running time: 96 minutes

Rated: PG-13 for brief strong language.

The Lowdown: In this documentary, superstar cellist Yo-Yo Ma makes the case that music can bring the world together.

Where: Opens Friday at Amherst Theatre.