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Yo-Yo Ma and The Bach Project

Yo-Yo Ma
Jason Bell
Yo-Yo Ma

On The Bach Hour, the renowned cellist places the composer's music at the center of a world-wide effort to build local communities and confront their unique challenges.

On the program:

Cantata BWV 178 Wo Gott derr Herr nicht bei uns hält (translation) - Matthew White, countertenor; Makoto Sakurada, tenor; Peter Kooy, bass; Bach Collegium Japan, Masaaki Suzuki, conductor

Concerto in D, BWV 972, after Vivaldi, arr. Crespo and Höfs - German Brass

Cello Suite No. 3 in C, BWV 1009 - Yo-Yo Ma, cello

Learn more about The Bach Project



The wide open cascade of notes that opens Bach’s Third Cello Suite isn’t just music; it’s a message, the composer telling you that nothing is off the table in what you’re about to hear.


The boldness of that assertion is hard to appreciate now. At the time the music was written, the cello wasn’t really a spotlight instrument, its role mostly being limited to laying down a foundation other instruments could build on. But Bach heard possibilities no one else recognized.

Bach’s cello suites have become essential to our understanding of the composer and to the musical expression of the human spirit, as the performer you’re hearing knows as well as anyone. Yo-Yo Ma plays the Third Cello Suite, coming up on The Bach Hour.


Hello, I’m Brian McCreath; welcome to The Bach Hour from WCRB, Classical Radio Boston. It’s been three centuries since Bach - for reasons that are still largely unclear - wrote a collection of six multi-part suites for solo cello, a kind of piece with no precedent. Perceptions of those works have evolved, from dusty exercises for the practice room to a concert tour heard by hundreds of thousands of people around the world. And when Yo-Yo Ma undertook that tour, he had something much greater than sheer music in mind. You’ll hear about it, from Yo-Yo Ma himself, later in the hour.

We’ll begin, though, with Bach’s Cantata No. 178, Wo Gott derr Herr nicht bei uns hält, or “Where God the Lord does not dwell with us.” If you’d like to see a translation of the text for that piece from Boston’s Emmanuel Music, just visit us online at Classical WCRB dot org.

It’s based on Psalm 124, reflecting a perspective on the world as a fearsome, evil place, filled with the human failings of deceit and hypocrisy, from which the believer needs protection.

Steadfast protection from the divine is expressed at the very beginning through in a solid, measured chorale. At the same time, though, the instrumental lines are kinetic and twisted, expressing the rage of enemies:


Then, the alto soloist sings the chorale tune again, but now with interjections that paint a more detailed picture of a “serpent” of “guile and false intrigue,” out of which the divine leads believers to a “land of praise.”

The bass soloist brings in another metaphor, singing one of Bach’s truly great depictions of the sea. A roiling accompaniment sets up the soloist for the words, “Just as the wild sea surf crushes a ship with fury, so the enemy’s anger rages…”


The contrast between earthly evil and divine protection continues later on, as the chorus and three separate soloists ratchet up the tension through both individual and community perspectives on the struggle.


The piece ends with a warning against reason, a very odd thing to hear these days, and a good reminder that for all the eternal qualities of the music Bach wrote, he was still expressing, essentially, pre-Enlightenment theology.

Remember, you’ll find a translation of this piece from Emmanuel Music when you start at Classical WCRB dot org.

Here is Bach’s Cantata No. 178, featuring countertenor Matthew White, tenor Makoto Sakurada, and bass Peter Kooy. Masaaki Suzuki leads Bach Collegium Japan, here on The Bach Hour.

[MUSIC – BWV 178]

Bach’s Cantata No. 178, Wo Gott derr Herr nicht bei uns hält, or “Where God the Lord does not dwell with us,” in a performance by Bach Collegium Japan, led by Masaaki Suzuki. The soloists included countertenor Matthew White, tenor Makoto Sakurada, and bass Peter Kooy.

Long before Bach created his deepest and most astonishing masterpieces, like the Goldberg Variations and the B minor Mass, he experimented. As a young composer, he took on music by Italian composers - the very creators of the concerto form - and made it his own. That’s the case with a Violin Concerto in D by Vivaldi that Bach made into a solo harpsichord piece. And German Brass took it one step further in this arrangement of the piece for their instruments, here on The Bach Hour.

[MUSIC – BWV 972]

A Concerto in D, originally by Vivaldi, transformed by Bach for solo harpsichord, and arranged by the performers you just heard, German Brass.

Re-imagining music by others was one way Bach honed his craft as a young composer, a practice that eventually led him to his own unprecedented creations. Like the six suites for solo cello. Christoph Wolff writes in his [new book] [2020 book], Bach’s Musical Universe, that there was a virtuoso violinist names Paul von Westhoff who pioneered dance suites for solo violin. But, according to Wolff, “If Westhoff provided the principal impulse for the idea of violin solos, no model Bach would have known existed for the cello suites…. with respect to the technical and stylistic makeup of the music, Bach was completely on his own.”

Well, it’s music that has taken on such magnitude, as an expression of the human spirit, that cellist Yo-Yo Ma built a world tour around the cello suites, with complete concert performances of the entire set accompanied by “days of action” that brought together communities to face their greatest challenges together. When he launched the tour, I asked Yo-Yo Ma what led him to the idea.

"My son Nicholas, who had been doing a documentary on Mr. Rogers, said to me, 'You know, Daddy, do you know that Mister Rogers was asked, well, you know, after tragedies to say, what do you do? How do you tell a child about an assassination or, you know, a senseless attack?' And apparently his response was that, 'Well, I think about what my mother used to say,' Mr. Rogers says. 'And my mother used to say, whenever there's a tragedy or there's a crisis, always look for the helpers, because there are always helpers.' And taking that, that was like a really inspirational moment. And I thought, you know, it would be great because, if Bach really - there's that power inherent in the music to help and to heal, then maybe part of taking this around or this version is to go around to different communities and play it for, really, in a certain way, all the community, whether it's in open space or in more difficult areas, or border areas, and places with... You know, every place has a problem, I would say, and also has great people. So let's look for the great people that are doing all the great work. And 36 communities later, if these communities can communicate with one another in terms of what their best practices are, we actually have people in culture, as in the culture of all of us helping to do culture and action, which is about participating in dealing with some of our hardest to solve issues."

And here is Yo-Yo Ma, with the Cello Suite No. 3, here on The Bach Hour.

[MUSIC – BWV 1009]

The Cello Suite No. 3 by Bach, in a 2018 release by Yo-Yo Ma. It was the third time Yo-Yo Ma recorded this music, and it was an accompaniment to his Bach Project, a world tour that ties his performances to days of community dialogue and action. As he puts it in his notes for the release,

"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?"

Remember, you can hear this program again on demand when you visit Classical WCRB dot org, where you can also hear the 24/7 Bach Channel.

Thank you for joining me today, and thanks also to audio engineer Antonio Oliart Ros. I’m Brian McCreath, and I’ll hope to have your company again next week here on The Bach Hour.