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Monday, August 13, 2018

Yo-Yo Ma Plays Bach Unaccompanied, Lays Bare His Soul at Blossom

Posted By on Mon, Aug 13, 2018 at 12:40 PM

  • Photo by Roger Mastroianni, Courtesy of The Cleveland Orchestra
Played sitting, the cello is perhaps the most intimate of instruments. A musician wraps arms and knees around its body pulling a warm sound not unlike a human voice from its core. Perhaps then, nothing was more intimate than the most famous cellist in the world, Yo-Yo Ma, playing all Six Suites for Solo Cello by J.S. Bach at Blossom Music Center last night.

There are few (if any other) musicians who can convince a sold-out crowd to listen to them play one instrument for two hours and 45 minutes without any semblance of an intermission. But that’s what Ma tricked an audience into experiencing last night. The whole event was just him and a cello on a mostly naked stage. There was no Cleveland Orchestra behind him, not a piano in sight and not even a screen with helpful visual aids to tell us how to feel.

Ma, now 64, has had these 300-year-old suites memorized since he was 5. He probably knows them better than anything else in his life. They're a constant companion, he explained in the concert notes, played through times of sadness and joy, and in practice spaces and concert halls. And he plays them with such honesty. Any child prodigy can bang out the fast finger portions of these pieces, but Ma showed that true mastery is found in the slow sections. In the quietness and turns of phrases he’d make your heart beat faster. Then he’d dig down and play wide, velvety notes, leaning his head over the instrument and moving it slightly to the left as if to breathe secrets into its body.

Naturally, he played all six in order, beginning with the most well-known/commercialized of the bunch, the Prelude from Suite No. 1. The beauty was there from the start, but it did seem like he was holding back just a bit trying to conserve his energy. Still, the sweat on the top of his head arrived early.

Bach’s Suites for Solo Cello are somewhat of a mystery. It’s unknown when they were exactly written or for what setting. Only in the last century when famed cellist Pablo Casals rediscovered them have these works become a staple of the cello repertoire. To play all six suites in a row in one concert isn’t done, but then again, no one else is Yo-Yo Ma.

Each one is a grueling task, asking for technical precision through hairy string crossings and finger noodling galore. Then, there’s the matter of making it all sound interesting. As Bach’s original manuscript has never been uncovered, cellists have made up their own bowings, tempos and dynamics for years. And Ma, having played these for six decades, adds his own spin to phrasing, choosing to move between Baroque lightness and Romantic depth. In these works, he can bare his soul.

Following Suite No. 1, which he played through without stops, Ma stood and took in the clapping, also allowing for late attendees to roll into the pavilion.

“I know there was traffic, so I’ll let you get to your seats,” he said kindly from the stage. “But how great is this fantastic weather?” People on the lawn cheered in response during the last moments of sunshine.

Moving into Suite No. 2, he let go a bit, digging into the glories of the slow and stunning Sarabande. Then with Suite No. 3, a crowd favorite, he went all in, reveling in the highs and lows. This one garnered thunderous applause, with the audience standing and yelling. Ma stood too and took the cheering well, raising his hands in the air like Rocky did after climbing all those stairs, even jumping a bit.

After finishing the passionate fourth suite, Ma once again took to his microphone saying, “You all are such a great audience. If you were my family, you would have been asleep right now.” But he also wanted to take the time to set up the fifth and sixth suites, which are (the amount of notes in the sixth alone, oh boy) something to behold. Ma explained that Suite No. 5 in particular has helped him through trying times, and that he comes back to it when things don’t make sense in his life. The sixth he described as transcendent and celebratory. Through playing this music, he said he wants people to realize that through common goals we can all come together.

“These suites are dedicated to those who work to help others,” he said. Of course, anyone who’s seen Ma’s work on Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood and Sesame Street wouldn't be surprised by this sentiment.

Sitting back into the final third of the concert, a rustling set in over the audience. Butts began to hurt, some folks needed to cough, and others decided to miss the entire sixth suite to try and beat traffic (your loss). But that we needed to work a bit to experience this added to the pleasure of the near perfectly played performance. As Ma wrapped up the Gigue of the final movement, folks leapt to their feet in appreciation.

For an encore, Ma performed Casals’ favorite piece “Song for the Birds,” bringing chills and tears to many. And then, he said “goodbye” and left us behind. We’d all survived a nearly three-hour show together, and that’s something that won’t easily be forgotten.

Yo-Yo Ma’s third recording of the Bach unaccompanied suites arrives Aug. 17. He continues to tour this show around the world.

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