Bach's Cello Suites, Live, with Yo-Yo Ma

May 19, 2020

Live from WCRB's Fraser Performance Studio on Sunday, May 24, Yo-Yo Ma offered Bach's iconic works in memory of those lost to the global pandemic and in tribute to the resilience of all who are confronting the challenges of these times.

This performance is no longer available.

Today’s world moves quickly. The ways we travel from place to place, or communicate with each other; the pace at which we consume news and binge-watch our favorite TV shows – everything is optimized to give us the fastest way to move from point A to point B. So there is something special about the things that endure. There is no better example of this, I think, than the music of J.S. Bach, which has enchanted us for hundreds of years, and yet still offers new discoveries.

Yo-Yo Ma understands this – not just Bach’s lasting power in history, but in his own career, too. In 2018, he released a recording of Bach’s six cello suites, called “Six Evolutions;” it was his third time recording the suites over the course of his life, and, he’s said, it will be his last.

In his notes for the recording, Ma wrote, “For almost six decades, [the cello suites] have given me sustenance, comfort, and joy during times of stress, celebration, and loss… I share this music, which has helped shape the evolution of my life, with the hope that it might spark a conversation about how culture can be a source of the solutions we need. It is one more experiment, this time a search for answers to the question: What we can do together, that we cannot do alone?”

It’s a sentiment that governs Ma’s approach to music-making, especially in recent years. His belief in the power of music as a unifying force, as something that reminds us of our shared humanity, is something he shares everywhere he goes. Along with releasing “Six Evolutions,” Ma embarked on a tour called “The Bach Project,” which, though still ongoing, is currently suspended due to COVID-19.

When all is said and done, Ma will have visited 36 cities on 6 continents, coordinating performances with Days of Action, uniquely targeted to the needs of each location. It’s a chance to turn something as fleeting and intangible as live music – which lasts only as long as there are notes on the page -- into something that endures, in a more practical sense.

When Ma visited the Berkshires in August, 2019, for example, he performed the six cello suites at Tanglewood; the day before, he met with arts organizations, businesses, and nonprofits in nearby Pittsfield, MA, where they built benches and tables for local organizations and homes, planted trees, and held a town-hall-style meeting discussing how making builds confidence, encourages resilience, and helps create a strong community.

And when he visited Beirut, Lebanon later that month, he joined local nonprofits in citywide performances drawing attention to children’s rights and the importance of free speech and expression.

But why Bach? What makes this music such a perfect vehicle for Ma’s mission? In his eyes, The Bach Project draws on Bach’s ability to speak to our shared humanity – a reminder that is increasingly important in an increasingly divided world. Also, the cello suites are simply really, really beautiful.

In his liner notes for “Six Evolutions,” Ma writes,

“Over the years, I came to believe that, in creating these works, Bach played the part of a musician-scientist, expressing precise observations about nature and human nature. He did so, in the first three suites, by experimenting with all that the cello can do as a solo instrument. In the final three, he demanded even more of the cello, and of himself, asking a single-line instrument to speak in multiple voices. His compositional invention is at once explicit and implicit, requiring the listener’s unconscious ear to fill in what the cello can only suggest, achieving a sonic and architectural richness that ultimately transcends the instrument itself.”

“Transcending the instrument itself” is just what The Bach Project and, more generally, Bach's cello suites are all about: making music mean more than just notes on a page.

And while The Bach Project tour is currently on pause, Ma has by no means been idle; rather, he’s bringing his music-making and his activism to the digital realm. On his social media accounts, he is drawing attention to the work the United Nations is doing for the environment, raising awareness for ways to help during the current COVID-19 pandemic, and playing in digital benefit concerts with the Silkroad Project and Playing For Change. He’s also posting daily videos, filmed at home, of music he’s calling #songsofcomfort – beautiful pieces for whoever happens to need them. Today, that’s a lot of us.

On Sunday, May 24, Ma also brought his message of hope, healing, and unity through music to WCRB, where he played all six Bach cello suites in our Fraser Performance Studio. It was broadcast live on the radio, on TV on WGBH-2, and online, on our website and on Ma's YouTube channel. This kind of production is complicated even in ordinary times, but current health and safety concerns due to COVID-19 added yet another layer of complication.

As Daphne Northrop reported for WGBH.org,

"The preparations were an epic undertaking, involving flow charts to sequence events, equipment set-up and numerous sessions of deep cleaning; and choreography to make sure people came in and out of the studio without ever having more than two people in any room — and then always masked and more than six-feet apart."

“This one was exponentially more complicated in detail than what we usually do for live performances because of the safety issue,” said Brian McCreath, WCRB director of production. “At every turn, we made decisions based on safety and health.”

According to Northrop, the production team on performance day was limited to just nine people, including Ma and his manager. But this minimal team pulled off something spectacular, and Ma's Bach suites resonated with hundreds of thousands of people watching and listening worldwide.

As Ma said during the broadcast, and as several listeners echoed on social media afterwards, "out of the deepest despair, there is solace and light." Thanks to everyone involved in this production, and to everyone listening and watching, for sharing in that light.

For more about the herculean effort behind this live broadcast, visit WGBH.org.

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