Venture Culturalist Yo-Yo Ma, through Bach's Cello Suites

Now at age 62, cellist Yo-Yo Ma says that he is reassessing all that he knows, including Bach’s six suites for solo cello. He just made his third and final recording of them – and it’s WCRB’s CD of the Week.

Many musicians have re-recorded their most deeply loved music at different times in their lives. Cellist Yo-Yo Ma is no exception to that, and he has turned to Bach’s cello suites for a third and last time. Last December, he called upon all that his life has revealed to him, and in an empty and perfect musical space – Mechanics Hall in Worcester – he let them unfold in the way that he understands them now.

This time, something indescribable has entered his playing. He’s found an even more natural and poignant way of launching the phrases, still with restraint that brings certain endings to an almost painfully beautiful and intimate hush. He has been playing the first suite since his father taught it to him, measure by measure, when he was just four, and even then he felt a deep pleasure in its energy and its silences. Now, at 62, he seems to see the music’s larger meaning, and he lets it take flight as though he is letting go in some way – touched by its wisdom and in love with the comfort it brings.   

Yo-Yo’s message in the liner notes is also touching. He remembers that his first recording of the suites had a glow of gratitude about it. He had just successfully undergone successful major spinal surgery, and he was full of excitement about starting a family with his wife, Jill.

His second recording was experimental. He was interested in focusing on the creative force behind the suites, and he enlisted filmmakers, choreographers, and a garden designer to react to them. The result was a series of six films called Inspired by Bach.

This time, Yo-Yo is using the suites to begin some serious and responsive conversations on culture in society – real conversations, in 36 cities across six continents over two years. He’s heading to places where people are feeling that no one is listening; Yo-Yo is determined to go and to listen.  The suites are a gift for sparking some serious conversation. The day after a concert, he says, will be a day of action (see #cultureinaction). This is the side of Yo-Yo Ma that needs to constantly reach out – it’s why he’s called himself a “venture culturalist.”

In the CD’s liner notes, Yo-Yo remembers that it was his son Nicholas who pointed him toward a precious piece of wisdom from Fred Rogers: “In a crisis, look for the helpers.” Yo-Yo Ma sees the Bach suites as offering help: there is equilibrium and solace for those who need it. The genius of Bach, he says, is that he knew the limits of the cello and in the suites, he “makes the listener’s ear subconsciously, implicitly work to fill in the gaps.” The player and the listener together is what makes the pieces whole. That, says Yo-Yo, is the secret to why people, when they are in need, feel they are being helped.

Here’s Yo-Yo Ma talking about his new Bach journey with his life-long friend, conductor Michael Stern:

Listen to a track from the album:

Hear an interview with Yo-Yo Ma and WCRB's Brian McCreath on Ma's 2015 album Songs from the Arc of Life:

For more information and to purchase this recording, visit ArkivMusic.