Cellist Yo-Yo Ma calls East Tennessee ‘paradise’

In addition to performing, cellist Yo-Yo Ma acted as emcee for the 2-1/2 hour “Our Common Nature” event last Friday.

“I thought I was in paradise, except that I’m not dead yet!” exclaimed superstar cellist Yo-Yo Ma during his appearance at World’s Fair Park on Friday night, referring to the beauty and culture he discovered in the Appalachian Mountains and East Tennessee.

“Maybe that’s why there’s so much creativity here,” he added.

Ma stuck around these parts long enough to know what he was talking about. Prior to his appearance as part of his “Our Common Nature” project, which had him playing with a diverse band of 11 other accomplished artists Friday, he made a series of unadvertised “pop-up” appearances in our region. They ranged from Cades Cove and elsewhere in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, to Lakeshore Park in West Knoxville, Market Square downtown and the University of Tennessee Gardens.

Ma is the best-known cellist in the world. He has recorded 90 albums and won 19 Grammy Awards. In 2020, he was named one of Time magazine’s “100 most influential people.” And — here’s one I just love and which embarrasses him the most — in 2011 “People” magazine declared him “the sexiest classical musician!” And, the icing on the cake: he’s appeared as himself on “Sesame Street” five times!

A sold-out crowd of 5,500 purchased tickets to “Our Common Nature” at World’s Fair Park on Friday night. Another 2,000 to 3,000 watched for free on a big screen in a separate part of the park.

Joining Ma at his sold-out show on Friday were other high achievers — two of whom played their own sold-out shows at the Bijou Theatre on Thursday and Saturday. Rhiannon Giddens, one of the founding members of the Carolina Chocolate Drops, not only is a Grammy winner and a recipient of the MacArthur “Genius” award, but she also just won a Pulitzer Prize for Music for an opera she co-wrote.

And mandolin virtuoso Chris Thile, formerly of Nickel Creek and currently with the Punch Brothers, also is a MacArthur “Genius” award winner, and has won four Grammys.

Philanthropist Roy Cockrum’s foundation was one of the top sponsors of Friday’s event. Others were The Boyd Foundation, Natalie and Jim Haslam, Aslan Foundation, Visit Knoxville, Tennessee Arts Commission, East Tennessee Foundation, Downtown Knoxville, Arts & Culture Alliance, Knox County, the City of Knoxville, Cherokee Distributing Company and Real Good Kitchen.

Others on the stage Friday were vocalist Eric Mingus; Edgar Meyer (five Grammys); Grammy-winner Justin Robinson; Cherokee flutist Jarrett Grey Wildcatt; indigenous singer Jennifer Kreisberg; author, storyteller and musician Sheila Kay Adams; singer-songwriter Amythyst Kiah; dance caller, musician and flatfoot dancer Phil Jamison; and Cherokee scholar Tom Belt. As diverse as this group was — four of African American descent, three of Native American descent, four white musicians and Ma himself, who is of Chinese heritage — all had Appalachian chops in their music.

There were 5,500 paying attendees, which was the limit for the South Performance Lawn at World’s Fair Park. But, in addition, between 2,000 and 3,000 attended a free event elsewhere on World’s Fair Park where they could view on a big screen the action taking place in the paying section of the park, as well as listen to local musicians and take part in a range of other activities.

Given the level of accomplishment and celebrity on display Friday, I was surprised by the scant local news coverage. Except for WBIR-TV, which carried numerous stories. (Good job, guys.) My friend Alan Sims, who writes the “Inside of Knoxville” blog, had a very apt  summation of the event:

“By turns a celebration and a reckoning, an expression of our common joy and our shared painful history, the three days offered a rare experience, leaving those who were there with the feeling we had borne witness to something extraordinary,” he wrote. You can read his entire post by clicking here.

“Our Common Nature” was the result of a collaboration between Ma and Ashley Capps’ Big Ears Festival. Once again, Capps puts Knoxville on the national and even international map.

Yo-Yo Ma at World’s Fair Park on Friday.

The fun actually started last Wednesday when word started getting out that “something interesting” was going to happen at Lakeshore Park at about 6 p.m.

When we got there shortly before 6, there were just a few folks milling around. But the setting sure was beautiful!

A crowd slowly started to gather. Some were people we recognized, who clearly had gotten the word. Others were simply park users who stumbled upon the scene.

Alan and Karen Sims. He writes the “Inside of Knoxville” blog. Like us, they live downtown. “It just seemed like a good day for a walk in the park,” he winked when I jokingly asked what he was doing there.

Steve and Mary Ellen Brewington and Craig Shelton, right, set up a picnic. Her family’s company, Cherokee Distributing Company, was one of the sponsors of “Our Common Nature.”

I took it as a good sign when I saw Jim Haslam, left, chatting with Tom McAdams. The Haslams were major sponsors. McAdams is one of the driving forces behind the establishment of Lakeshore Park.

Alan Carmichael and Melissa McAdams.

Folks from the Roy Cockrum Foundation, another big sponsor, arrived. From left, Carol Ann Lee, Frazier Marsh, Roy Cockrum, his sister Carolyn and Benita Hofstetter Koman.

From left, Mary Ellen Brewington, Lakeshore Park Conservancy Executive Director Julieanne Foy and Susan Bush.

Big Ears Development Director Casey Fox and Richard Stair, treasurer of the Big Ears board.

Then, without fanfare, Yo-Yo Ma and poet R.B. Morris strolled into the Overlook area of Lakeshore Park.

They were joined by Native American flutist Jarrett Grey Wildcatt.

The sound from his instrument was haunting.

Morris, formerly Knoxville’s poet laureate, recited a poem.

Ma performed, among other things, a brief snippet of Aaron Copland’s “Simple Gifts” from “Appalachian Spring” and a short piece of “Amazing Grace.” I will insert a bit of “Simple Gifts” at the end of this blog post.

The audience sat in mesmerized silence.

Very moving.

Everyone was spellbound.

In about 20 minutes, it was over.

Hugging ensued.

After Yo-Yo Ma slipped away, many of us hung around to socialize and process what we had experienced. Here’s Alan Carmichael, right, with Bryan Crow, director of operations for Big Ears Festival.

From left, Birgit Clark, Karly Stribling, and Oona Pearl Morris.

Sharon Pryse, left, and Natalie Haslam.

Ashley Capps, left, and Todd Steed, interim director of WUOT-FM.

The other Yo-Yo Ma “pop-up” performance we caught happened the next day on Market Square.

Evie Andrus, in yellow, was playing with a bluegrass band she had put together on the Bill Lyons Pavilion at Market Square.

She soon was joined by Phil Jamison, whom most folks didn’t recognize as one of the most accomplished dance callers in the country.

In no time at all, he had people up on their feet. The crowd got larger as he issued basic square dance instructions.

We saw some of our friends from the City of Knoxville hanging around. From left, Chip Barry, Paige Travis and Michael Dunthorn.

Mayor Indya Kincannon, in orange, was one of the first to join a “square.”

Ashley Capps, left, joined in, too!

And Yo-Yo Ma, the most famous cellist in the world, slipped in among the band members with no introduction.

Here he is chatting with Jodi Harbin.

Sheena McCall didn’t miss the photo op!

Our friend Ronnie Collins was on hand to grab a few shots, too!

Later, Ashley Capps came over to where we were sitting at a table on Kabuki’s patio and visited with Knoxville Symphony Music Director Aram Demirjian.

In about 20 minutes, it ended with hugs, again!

That night, Amythyst Kiah opened for a sold-out Chris Thile show at the Bijou Theatre. They both would play with Yo-Yo Ma at World’s Fair Park the next day.

Chris Thile knocked us all dead with his mandolin playing, singing and quick wit!

When Friday rolled around, we met up with these great friends at a reception prior to the “Our Common Nature” event. From left, Bill Morrow, Margie Nichols, Ginny Morrow and John Gill.

We settled in on the fifth row in front of these familiar faces. From left, Angela Masini, Sheena McCall, Michael and Judy Morman, and Gina Buffum.

Our buddy Cathy Hill went up close to the stage to get a closer look at the instruments.

More folks anticipating the start of the show. From left, Alicia Randisi-Hooker, Alice Stuart, Mary Sue Greiner, and Dr. Henry Hooker.

Gina and Fred Buffum.

Yo-Yo Ma and Rhiannon Giddens.

From left, Yo-Yo Ma, Eric Mingus and Jennifer Kreisberg, who sang in a Native American language.

Again, we heard the distinctive sound of Jarrett Grey Wildcatt’s flute.

Native American scholar Tom Belt telling what the land means to his people and culture.

Chris Thile, left, and Edgar Meyer. (Meyer grew up in Oak Ridge, by the way.)

Here they are joined by Yo-Yo Ma.

North Carolina author, storyteller and singer Sheila Kay Adams.

It was great hearing Amythyst Kiah again.

Rhiannon Giddens and her fellow Carolina Chocolate Drops member, Justin Robinson.

Phil Jamison, the dance caller from the previous night on Market Square, proved he can play as well as call. (And, you can see him dance at the bottom of this blog post!)

Eric Mingus has a big, powerful voice.

So does Jennifer Kreisberg.

The curtain call came after 2-1/2 hours. From left, Tom Belt, Yo-Yo Ma, Edgar Meyer, Chris Thile, Jarrett Grey Wildcatt, Eric Mingus, Rhiannon Giddens, Amythyst Kiah, Jennifer Kreisberg, Justin Robinson, Sheila Kay Adams and Phil Jamison.

On the way out, we ran into some of the stars of the Cattywampus Puppet Council who had been entertaining folks at the free part of the venue. They came into the paying area late in the evening and danced to the tunes. I love them!

And we ran into our friends R.J. Hinde, left, and John Winemiller. And Knoxville Mayor Indya Kincannon.

Yo-Yo Ma, great guy that he is, hosted an after-party for the musicians and staff at J.C. Holdway following the show. Here he is with Birgit Clark and her hubs, Ashley Capps. (Someone sent me this picture. I wasn’t there, darn it! Ha.)

The fantastic experience concluded on Saturday with a sold-out performance by Rhiannon Giddens and Justin Robinson at the Bijou Theatre. Sheila Kay Adams opened for them.

How lucky are we to live in this charmed city?

Here’s Yo-Yo Ma playing at Lakeshore Park:


Here’s Phil Jamison proving he can do more than “call” a dance:



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12 Responses to Cellist Yo-Yo Ma calls East Tennessee ‘paradise’

  1. Lon Knight, on May 31st, 2023 at 4:50 pm said:

    Wonderful article and photos!

  2. Lillian T. Mashburn, on May 31st, 2023 at 5:25 pm said:

    Thank you for the wonderful photos!! I was so enthralled by the music, I forgot to take any! It was a magical night for Knoxville!

  3. Kathy Brennan, on May 31st, 2023 at 6:06 pm said:

    WOW! If I had only known…my loss!
    I have experienced Yo Yo Ma with James Taylor. Fabulous! A very moving experience.

    I don’t know how I missed not knowing about these events. Thank you Cynthia

    BTW do you know about the Art Exhibit opening Friday 5:00 at UT Art Gallery, Curator Alex Gingrow

  4. Ann Wheeler, on May 31st, 2023 at 8:09 pm said:

    Ashley and Birgitt are beautiful inspirations to our community!

  5. Cynthia Moxley, on May 31st, 2023 at 11:17 pm said:

    Lon: Thanks! It’s easy when you have material like this!

    Lillian: I thought I saw you there! Totally agree about the magic.

    Kathy: I think you would have loved it. Will check out the art exhibit.

    Ann: Couldn’t agree more!

  6. Margie Nichols, on June 1st, 2023 at 7:36 am said:

    It was a magical evening ❤️

  7. Rusha Sams, on June 1st, 2023 at 7:37 am said:

    Thanks for the pictures capturing an awesome event right in the heart of Knoxville! What an evening and what a great extension into downtown. Do we live in a great place, or what?

  8. Georgiana Fry Vines, on June 1st, 2023 at 4:12 pm said:

    Since I didn’t attend the popups or the World’s Fair event, these photos with comments come pretty darn close to being there!

  9. Kathy, on June 2nd, 2023 at 7:08 pm said:

    This was a wonderful weekend! Many many thanks to those sponsors, visionaries, and officials who made it happens. It was an indescribable experience.

  10. Cynthia Moxley, on June 2nd, 2023 at 11:25 pm said:

    Margie: Fun being there with you all!

    Rusha: We DO live in a fantastic city!

    Georgiana: I think you would have loved it!

    Kathy: Agree with you on gratitude to the sponsors. What a gift to our community!

  11. Mint Lingerfelt, on June 3rd, 2023 at 1:48 pm said:

    Such a wonderful, entertaining event for our city. So much talent in one place.

  12. Leslie Testerman, on June 3rd, 2023 at 1:50 pm said:

    Thank you Cynthia for making it possible for many of us, who r unable to attend these events , to experience & enjoy them. And thank you Ashley & others who made it possible. Knoxville is a very special place to live, & our hearts are full of gratitude

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