Yo-Yo Ma is out to change the world through music, and next weekend that mission will take the renowned cellist to Laredo and Nuevo Laredo. At a time when political debates about immigration threaten to drive a wedge between those who live on opposite sides of the Rio Grande, Ma hopes his performance in the middle of the Gateway to the Americas International Bridge will highlight how so much more unites American and Mexican cultures than divides them.
Last August, Ma set out on a two-year journey to perform all six cello suites by composer Johann Sebastian Bach in 36 cities on six different continents. He’s calling it “The Bach Project.” At each tour stop, he’s also planned a “Day of Action,” during which he’ll meet with community leaders and artists to host public conversations and creative experiences.
After visits to nine other cities—places as varied as Mumbai, India; Leipzig, Germany; and Youngstown, Ohio—he’ll next perform April 12 in San Antonio at Trinity University’s Laurie Auditorium before heading to Laredo the following day. Ma’s only condition about including San Antonio (his only Texas stop) on the tour was that his day of action take place on the border. Organizers at ARTS San Antonio reached out to Brendan Townsend, music director of the Laredo Philharmonic, to see if his group could host the cellist there. “It took me about half a millisecond to say yes,” Townsend said.
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Beginning at 9 a.m. April 13, Ma will perform on the bridge before going to Nuevo Laredo, where he’ll meet with music students. Afterward he’ll cross back into Laredo and participate in a conversation about culture and connection at the Laredo Center for the Arts. The day’s events will culminate with a pachanga at Tres Laredos Park, where students, environmental groups, musicians, and dancers will celebrate together, putting on a show that showcases the blended culture of the border region.
The enthusiasm for Ma’s visit to Laredo has been infectious, Townsend said. “All of this is more about culture than it is the arts,” he said. “This is about communicating the really great parts of our community that the rest of the world doesn’t always see.” Many groups, from ballet folklórico dancers to car clubs, have reached out to see how they could help with the event or get involved.
Though the city of Laredo is eager to show that it’s more than just a border town, its proximity to Mexico is a crucial part of its identity. Hosting Ma’s performance on the Gateway bridge symbolizes the importance of that international relationship. The crossing is the busiest U.S. land port and accounts for roughly 40 percent of American trade with Mexico—it’s a critical lifeline between the two cities.
Beyond that, the constant cultural exchange of food, music, and art across the border has long shaped Laredo’s identity. But as significant numbers of asylum seekers have arrived from Central America in recent years, discussions surrounding immigration and the border have become more divisive. Townsend says Ma is hoping that music will help bridge those widening gaps.
“He’s most interested in bringing communities together and seeing how they connect with culture,” Townsend said. “We’re two cities divided by a river, but really, we’re one community.”