United States Blossom Music Festival  – Bach: Yo-Yo Ma (cello), Blossom Music Center, Cuyahoga Falls, Ohio, 12.8.2018. (MSJ)
Bach – Six Suites for Solo Cello, BWV 1007-1012
Creeping through the traffic bottleneck coming to the Blossom Music Festival, it was easy to get skeptical about seeing ten thousand or more people showing up to hear some guy saw on a wooden box. And could that many people sit through two-and-a-half hours of intimate, intellectual Bach? Was the fame of this particular cellist just media hype?
Having heard Yo-Yo Ma perform before, I knew the answer to the last question was, ‘No’. He is a performer of larger-than-life personality, bottomless depths of energy, and an open-hearted passion for music second to none. But I had never sat through Bach’s six suites for unaccompanied cello without intermission, so I was still a little dubious, especially when seeing the massive crowd present to witness American classical music’s current superstar playing the music dearest to him.
After an endless stream of latecomers delayed the opening, Yo-Yo Ma finally stepped out onto the wooden stage of the Blossom Pavilion, strikingly lit with electric blue footlights.
And then he started playing.
Granted, some discreet but perfectly balanced amplification was used to fill the pavilion with the cellist’s sound and boost it to the thousands listening outside on the lawn. Granted, the facility’s two new video walls were put to use providing closeups and different camera angles. But there is something more, something involving Ma’s personal projection of energy that makes it an active listening experience. Above all, his playing feels less abstract, more like observing a language. Speaking through the instrument is particularly rare today, unless one looks back to practitioners of a different age such as Artur Schnabel or Andres Segovia.
As soon as Ma began playing, there was an arresting sense of the music happening in the moment. It was as if he were making up the score on the spot, not playing passages written almost three hundred years ago. Like many people my age, I learned the suites from Ma’s first recording, made in the early 1980s, when the cellist was still in his youth. While his technical brilliance remains jaw-droppingly secure, his grasp of Bach’s idiom has grown powerfully. The 1980s recordings are remarkable for their innocence and their straightforward joy, but Ma has gradually figured out Bach’s secrets. Consider the way Glenn Gould compared his early recording of Bach’s Goldberg Variations to the one he did late in life: the early recording was about the instrument; the late recording was about the composer. Now Ma and Bach have that kind of intimacy.
Ma’s Suite No.1 now has a sense of airy serenity that welcomes the listener into a world that travels to remote landscapes through concentrated melodic, rhythmic, and polyphonic gestures. Ma’s touch has grown lighter and defter over the years, allowing the dance-based forms to skip forward as if self-animated.
The Suite No.2 has grown even more expressive, yet never in a romanticized way. Though Ma’s style isn’t especially ‘historically informed’, there is nonetheless an awareness of baroque style. Without compromising his personal vision, Ma has accepted the pauses, the freedom, the lighter bowing. He has taken the sum of tradition and innovation to create a living version of a classic.
Playfulness was the key to Ma’s approach to the Third Suite. Not a carefree silliness, but a sense of serious exploration, culminating in the quirky and dissonant gestures of the final gigue, reminiscent of older vielle dance music. The Suite No.4 brought relaxation and peacefulness.
Before the demanding final two, the cellist paused to address the audience, movingly dedicating them to ‘those who help others’. The Suite No.5 was spellbinding, personal and intense. The arcs of the Sarabande were like the slowly moving pieces of a giant Calder sculpture, reflecting and refracting light and shadow. The Suite No.6 was dazzling in its intricacy. How Ma can concentrate so much in one continuous sitting without losing technical form is a mystery, but to hear Bach emanating from him was astonishing to witness. Two-and-a-half hours seemed to pass in just a few minutes.
I teared up several times in this concert—sometimes by Bach’s genius, or at others, by Ma’s glorious advocacy. But for thousands of people to gather and celebrate profound rationality in an age of political brutalism almost felt like an act of political defiance. Bach and Ma spoke to both heart and mind, and we need that desperately.
Mark Sebastian Jordan