Hearing Yo-Yo Ma perform all six Bach cello Suites live on television Sunday made for a very special occasion. Ma’s “Bach Project,” a tour of 36 concerts over six continents focusing mostly in border towns, connects communities across borders.
During the pandemic, much of the tour has been postponed. Instead of offering in-person appearances, Ma decided to perform from the Fraser Studio at WGBH in Boston, with transmissions via live-streaming from his YouTube channel and simultaneously broadcast on WGBH’s television and radio stations.
A couple days prior, I listened to an interview he did with Christopher Lydon on “Radio Open Source,” the oldest podcast still in existence. The touching interview gave me some context which made the performance something deeper. Chris quoted Yo-Yo who apparently said that when he performs, he’s not there to be the “Dominos delivery guy,” he’s there to eat the pizza with the audience as well. I found that this spirit of sharing the music all together permeated his playing throughout the two-and-a-half-hour virtual concert.
He specifically dedicated the fifth suite, arguably the darkest one, to everyone who had experienced loss in some form. While this was the most emotional segment of the performance, I gathered that he meant on the whole to inspire hope and resilience. I imagine that anyone who listened that day couldn’t help but to feel some reprieve from all the current stress of the outside world.
Yo-Yo has been a hero of mine since I was a small child. I’ll never forget playing for him backstage at Boston’s Symphony Hall when I was seven years old. He picked up the stuffed animal I had brought with me and danced with it while I played Bartok’s Romanian Dances. His solo cello album was one of the most inspiring recordings to me and I listened to it regularly as a teenager. While I’m no longer a kid who admires him only for his sheer technical and musical abilities, I still thoroughly enjoyed hearing an interpretation of the suites that to my ears was perfectly balanced. He was able to find a broad range of contrast between the movements, and still provide a sense of unity within a single suite. At the same time, he created vastly differing sound-worlds between each suite. The transition between the end of the second suite and the beginning of the third was so striking I thought it almost sounded like it could have been written by two different composers.
He performed all the suites in the standard tuning of A,D,G,C, instead of the scordatura the original score calls for. Bach wrote the fifth suite to be played with a drop-down A string to a G, which gives it an extra dark quality. It is widely considered that the sixth suite was written for a five-string cello called a piccolo cello, adding an extra E string which widens the range and enables an open string pedal tone used generously in the Prelude. I also noticed he tuned his cello exceptionally sharp; A=448 when I checked with my tuner. This is in contrast with his studio recordings which are tuned at the more historically inclined A=432. His tone remained pleasing and mellow despite this, perhaps the added tension gave the performance a fitting slight sense of urgency.
YouTube live allowed me into the Fraser Studio, a top recording venue, for a glimpse of the soundcheck before the broadcast began. As soon as Ma played his first warmup notes I could hear that high-end microphones were picking up both the fine details of his articulation as well as the ambient room sound. The reverb level was conservative, allowing the clarity of the instrument to shine through. There were three cameras on Ma I believe, and the lighting was not too bright. You could see the sound absorbing panels lining the walls behind him. There were a few closeup shots of his bow-arm that revealed his flexible bow grip, and a few close ups of his face. I wondered if there were other people in the room because he would glance around the room at times. It was fascinating to see someone close up who I’d seen live from far away on stage so many times before.
At 64 years old, Ma says he has nothing to prove. Instead of showcasing his cellistic excellence, he is focused on helping humanity in the best way he can. He used words like “light” and “hope” to describe why he was performing the suites for us. And in these trying times, I appreciate his intention wholeheartedly. Listening to him that day gave me a sense of relief that still lingers in a comforting way.
After his rendition, Ma responded to the flow of thousands of comments pouring into his YouTube channel from all over the world. He simply wrote “Thank you for sharing this music with me”. I’d like to say thank you Mr. Ma for bringing us together.
Sebastian Bäverstam is a cellist, pianist and composer from Newton, Massachusetts.