On November 29, 1962, Leonard Bernstein stood before a bedecked White House gaggle including President Eisenhower, President Kennedy, and Jacqueline Kennedy, proclaiming, “Now here’s a cultural image for you to ponder as you listen: a seven-year old Chinese cellist playing old French music for his new American compatriots!”
That transnational young future star was of course Yo-Yo Ma, and over the near six decades that have passed, his artistry and restless spirit of adventure have positioned him today as arguably America’s classical musician of note. No other figure combines Bernstein’s trademark co-mingling of effortless musical mastery, joy, and playfulness nearly as well as Ma.
How appropriate it was, then, for Tanglewood to welcome the now near-elder statesman, yet still somehow boyish mega-star to Lenny’s playground, the Koussevitzky Music Shed on Sunday night, where, in a mammoth musical undertaking, he presented a recital of all six Suites for Solo Cello by J.S. Bach, lasting an impossibly brisk 140 minutes, sans intermission. Co-presented by Caroline and James Taylor, the program was dedicated “to [the late] André Previn, whose wry wit, virtuosity, and irreverent genius knew no bounds.”
I’ve offered previously in this forum some thoughts on new efforts the classical music world is making in order to woo and retain audiences, and one temptation is to view this event as a matter of spectacle taking precedence over substance. Initially, the concert bore out these concerns. The concert started 30 minutes late, allegedly due to tangle(woo)d traffic, as many thousands found their ways to their seats. Sizable speakers hung ready to project the solitary sound as far back as the distant, picnicking lawn dwellers, anticipating their citronella-lit Bach. Onstage, a web of criss-crossed shadows backed up the solitary cellist, seated center stage and illuminated amidst soft incandescent purples. For music that would have likely first been performed in an intimate setting with a handful of attendees, the sense of scale seemed all out of proportion.
And then the music began. It did seem odd at first to hear such music electronically amplified, though the sound in the shed was clean and resonant; at times I wondered whether I was hearing the actual sound of the cello or the electronic sound, or some combination. Soon my ears relaxed into the imperfect (though likely unavoidable) arrangement, and then Ma reminded the gathered throng why he’s one of the few Artists with a capital A that could pull off such a Herculean feat of concentrative mastery. The sense of massive scale remained, and yet the reverent focus from the audience, having dropped instantly into an alternate experiential dimension, felt palpable.
Having spent almost the entirety of his 63 years with this music—by age four, he began learning the suites two measures at a time—Ma is no stranger to unorthodox, captivating means of presentation. After winning the 1985 Grammy for his CBS recording “Bach: The Unaccompanied Cello Suites,” Ma’s late 1990s “Inspired By Bach” series paired each suite with off-beat creative collaborators, including ice dancers Torvill and Dean, choreographer Mark Morris, and landscape designer Julie Moir Messervy. (As the final result of this ambitious civic collaboration, Boston’s loss ended up Toronto’s gain.) In August 2018, he embarked on “The Bach Project” tour, which presents all six suites in 36 iconic locations around the world. Many of these recitals are co-presented with public talks about issues germane to his host city.
There’s always been a certain sleekness to Ma’s playing, and the digital ads for Audi that solicited the audience upon entry felt prescient. Ma plays the cello the way an expert driver navigates treacherous turns in a luxury car ad, perhaps one of the innumerable versions that use the 1st Cello Suite in G Major to indicate effortless refinement and perfection. Ma knows every corner of the terrain of these pieces, and coaxed an infinite variety of colors from his Montagnana cello, an instrument whittled from wood decades prior to the birth of the American experiment.
Speaking of America, though Ma positions himself as a peacemaker and not a politician, one can’t help note that last April he programmed a stop on this series at the Juarez-Lincoln International Bridge on the Texas-Mexico border. Bach, a cellist, and a highly contested wall collectively carry massive socio-political resonances given the famous 1989 Berlin Wall appearance of Mstislav Rostropovich, once exiled from an authoritarian regime. Ma’s Bach Project website hints at his peace-making intentions, somehow both global and local, suggesting “Bach’s ability to speak to our humanity at a time when our civic conversation is often focused on division.” While Rostropovich summoned Bach to honor the victims of East German political violence, Ma inquired of the Tanglewood crowd, “who knew that Bach writing about the infinite variety of life could bring us together?” Prior to beginning the 5th Suite, Ma offered a dedication “to all the people here who have endured loss: loss of a loved one, loss of health, and particularly, loss of dignity.” One need not dig very deep to connect these sentiments to Ma’s performance at a site where inhumane atrocities are committed in the name of all Americans.
One of Ma’s most attractive attributes is the manner in which he utterly demystifies greatness; Ma is one of America’s most affable musical ambassadors. I’ve contributed thoughts here in the past on how the finest soloists all possess a deep and innate desire to share, to project and amplify some urgent inner longing. Perhaps ironically, when a celebrity performer invests so fully, the element of celebrity seems to fall away. Ma plays as if he is having a particularly rich conversation with an old friend. There is something so intimate, almost voyeuristic, about watching a human so enraptured.
After exclaiming “I’d like to dedicate this to all the people that try to make others’ lives better. The 3rd Suite is one of the most celebratory suites – let’s celebrate together,” Ma launched into this work, plumbing infinite variation amidst breakneck speeds.
What does Bach’s music ask of us? What vistas does Ma see before him as he performs, eyes closed to the world? What might it be like to be so completely inside these byzantine bits of melodic perfection that recalling them before thousands appears as effortless for him as it is for most audience members to merely clap their hands in response? Particularly taking in all six suites as a whole, where each suite almost becomes its own movement, the mind staggers to enlarge itself sufficiently to allow all this music in. We are humbled before Bach’s infinite variety the same way we are humbled before a sky full of stars.
The 4th Suite, perhaps a bit more stoic than the 3rd, featured cascading waterfall arpeggios and obsessive rhythmic clusters, with figures spinning out like some helter-skelter Calder-esque mobile. Ma so commanded his rapt audience that his mere keeping his bow on the bridge of his instrument at the conclusion of the 5th Suite precluded applause, and he shot like a sling straight on into the rhapsodic and athletic 6th Suite, a 4-stringed symphony of technical and interpretive challenges. From the outset, church bells seemed to peal and direct us toward an ecstatic adoration, an abundance of light and color, a festive kaleidoscope and fantasia of royal fireworks. Fiendish cross-bridge passages, each a seeming travelogue from some distant realm, revealed a whirlwind of flavors, every gradation of his torso, fingers, and knuckles executed with mathematical precision.
I’d be remiss to not mention my original, scrapped lede for this piece: “James Taylor picked a heck of an opener for his one-song Tanglewood appearance Sunday night.” And indeed, after a lengthy standing ovation at the conclusion of the 6th and final suite, Ma stated, “Tanglewood loves to encourage young musicians and singer-songwriters, such as the young Jimmy Taylor,” then brought on and accompanied the Tanglewood crowd favorite. The simplicity of “Sweet Baby James” tasted all the more sweet after such a smorgasbord of musical richness.
As a coda, and one that recalls some of the reverence this recital inspired in this reviewer and surely thousands of others, I’m left recalling some words on music and dancing by the great Irish playwright Brian Friel, which, like a full, rich evening of Bach, ought be heard in its entirety.
It drifts in from somewhere far away — a mirage of sound — a dream music that is both heard and imagined; that seems to be both itself and its own echo; a sound so alluring and so mesmeric that the afternoon is bewitched, maybe haunted, by it. And what is so strange about that memory is that everybody seems to be floating on those sweet sounds, moving rhythmically, languorously, in complete isolation; responding more to the mood of the music than to its beat. When I remember it, I think of it as dancing. Dancing with eyes half closed because to open them would break the spell. Dancing as if language had surrendered to movement — as if this ritual, this wordless ceremony, was now the way to speak, to whisper private and sacred things, to be in touch with some otherness. Dancing as if the very heart of life and all its hopes might be found in those assuaging notes and those hushed rhythms and in those silent and hypnotic movements. Dancing as if language no longer existed because words were no longer necessary.