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Yo-Yo Ma Wants Bach to Save the World

09.28.18
Yo-Yo Ma
The New York Times

By Zachary Woolfe

LEIPZIG, Germany — While it’s impossible not to think of Johann Sebastian Bach as you walk through this city, where he spent the final decades of his life, what little remains of his world here has been altered almost beyond recognition.

The house where he and his family lived was demolished a century ago. Next door, St. Thomas Church, where Bach was a cantor from 1723 to 1750, was overhauled in Gothic Revival style in the 1880s. St. Nicholas Church, where the “St. John Passion” was first performed in 1724, got its current cupcake-pastel interior decades after Bach died.

And Bach certainly would never have heard Arabic being widely spoken, as it is now, in the bustling, largely immigrant neighborhood of Neustadt. It was here, on a mild weekend afternoon recently, that Yo-Yo Ma bounded into a room in a community center, Stradivarius cello in hand, and moved swiftly around a seated circle of adults and children, grinning and giving one long high five.

“The most important thing is to bring all of yourself into a moment,” he said the next day. “If for even one second you’re like, ‘Oh, I have to go do this,’ people are really smart. They can see when someone is there, or just not quite there.”

Mr. Ma, 62, was entirely there. He stayed in the community center only about half an hour, but without seeming rushed, he blended disarming generosity — he gave two budding cellists his instrument to try out in front of the group — with a kind of subtle social work.

“Learning a new piece is like moving from one place to another,” he said in answer to someone’s question, connecting music-making to the lives of the migrants without making too big a deal of it.

If Mr. Ma seemed wholly at ease, a veteran politician delightedly working a town hall, it is because his visit, blending Bach and social responsibility, was nothing unusual in the career of the musician of our civic life. The one we call upon to play at the funeral Mass of a senator and the inauguration of a president, the anniversary of a terrorist attack and the commemoration of the victims of a bombing.

And what Mr. Ma plays at moments like those, to make us cry and then soothe us, is, more often than not, a selection from the Bach cello suites. These six works are the Everest of his instrument’s repertory, offering a guide to nearly everything a cello can do — as well as, many believe, charting a remarkably complete anatomy of emotion and aspiration.

Last month, Mr. Ma released his third and, in all likelihood, final recording of the suites, a relaxed, confident, deeply human interpretation during which, if you listen closely, you can sometimes hear him breathing as he plays. His trip to Leipzig was part of a sprawling project related to the album: Over the next two years, he will visit 36 cities — winking at the fact that each of the six suites has six sections — on six continents. (His next stop is Washington, on Nov. 29.)

In each city, he will pair a performance of the full cycle — nearly two and a half hours of labyrinthine music, played with barely a pause — with what he’s calling a “day of action” that brings Bach into the community, as in his trip to Neustadt. It’s a small and glancing, but also deeply felt, attempt to suggest that this music, with its objectivity and empathy, its breathless energy and delicate grace, could, if heard closely by enough people, change the world.

And the world, Mr. Ma readily acknowledges, could use some changing. The day of his recital in Leipzig, he said, “I’m thinking of what happened in Chemnitz,” only 50 miles southeast, where anti-immigrant riots had raged a few days earlier. A week later, asked by The Financial Timesabout President Trump, Mr. Ma said: “Would I play for him on his deathbed? No.”

Composed around 1720, just before Bach moved to Leipzig, the cello suites, now musical and emotional touchstones, were little known until the early 1900s. It was thought, even by some who knew of them, that they were merely études, nothing you’d want to perform in public.

They may have remained a curiosity had it not been for the great cellist Pablo Casals, who happened on a used edition of the score in a Barcelona shop when he was 13. Decades later, in the 1930s, he made a classic recording of the set, the success of which put the suites on the path to ubiquity.

“It’s both incredibly highfalutin and sublime, but also unbelievably elemental,” Mr. Ma said of the cycle. The suites inhabit different keys and different moods: The Third, for example, tends sunny; the Fifth broods. Broadly speaking, the final three are thornier and more troubled than the three before.

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