Creating and performing music can seem far removed from efforts to promote social justice, but two prominent speakers urged an audience at Harvard Business School Wednesday to see them as intimately related pursuits.
Renowned cellist Yo-Yo Ma ’76 and Deborah Borda, president and CEO of the New York Philharmonic, in a conversation moderated by Harvard Business School Professors Rohit Deshpandé and Henry McGee, discussed the ways in which “citizen musicians” can help build a more just and free society as an extension of their work as artists.
“What the New York Philharmonic is doing, and what I’m devoting the rest of my life to doing, is really thinking about social impact,” Ma said. “I’m not doing this because I need a job.”
Ma said embracing the issues of the world was natural for a musician, and dismissed the idea of “art for art’s sake.”
“We have a bigger purpose,” he said. “It’s never art for art’s sake, because even if I do it for myself in my head, I have an ideal. I’m actually trying to take something — a construct, a concept, a theory — and then I want to make it visible, I want to make it audible, I want to make it tactile. I want to make it felt.”
Borda spoke of the New York Philharmonic’s efforts to engage with social issues, including gender equality. Recognizing that “all the music we play was written by men,” the organization is launching an initiative next year — the 100th anniversary of the 19th Amendment, which gave women the right to vote — to have 19 women write major world premieres for the orchestra.
“We are thinking about how we can partner in other ways to broaden this conversation … because our world has been changed now by #MeToo,” she said.
Ma has incorporated the goals of social justice and peace into his musical work through Silkroad, the nonprofit he founded that gathers musicians from around the world to create music together that draws from their varied cultural traditions.
Through its diversity, the ensemble in its performances helps show that, “It’s not about who you are,” Ma said, “it’s about what you’re doing together and how you’re doing it.”