Cellist Yo-Yo Ma brought his great inspiration, and in turn part of his own life story, to an enthusiastic audience packed around the NPR Tiny Desk on a hot summer day. Ma is returning, yet again, to the Six Suites for Unaccompanied Cello by Johann Sebastian Bach, a Mount Everest for any cellist. He has just released his third studio recording of the complete set and is taking the music on a two-year, six-continent tour. Ma’s first recording of the Suites, released in 1983, earned him his first Grammy.
Ma has played the music for 58 years and along the way it’s become something of a practical guide to living, pulling him through hardships and celebrating times of joy. “It’s like forensic musicology,” Ma told the Tiny Desk audience. “Embedded in the way I play is actually, in many ways, everything I’ve experienced.”
The undulating “Prelude” from the Suite No. 1 was the very first music Ma ever played. He was four years old. The soulful “Sarabande” from the Sixth Suite has served dual purposes, Ma explained. “I’ve played this piece both at friends’ weddings, and unfortunately also at their memorial services.” And the exuberant “Gigue,” from the Third Suite, with its toe-tapping beat, reminds us that Bach was far from a stuffed wig. Such is this sturdy, versatile and benevolent music, offering a full range of the human condition.
And then there is Ma. Certainly one of the most brilliant cellists of modern times, he’s also a thoughtful, curious humanitarian, with an endless thirst to understand, celebrate, and connect disparate cultures of the world.
He’s also a true mensch. As soon as he arrived at the office to play, Ma unpacked his cello – a famed 1712 Stradivarius – and immediately handed it over, with his bow, and said, “Here play something.” It didn’t matter that they’d never held a cello. It was just another one of Yo-Yo Ma’s warm and welcoming gestures, another way to open up music to anyone and everyone.
J.S. Bach: “Prelude (from Suite No. 1 for Solo Cello)”
J.S. Bach: “Sarabande (from Suite No. 6 for Solo Cello)”
J.S. Bach: “Gigue (from Suite No. 3 for Solo Cello)”
Producers: Tom Huizenga, Kara Frame; Creative Director: Bob Boilen; Audio Engineer: Josh Rogosin; Videographers: Morgan Noelle Smith, Kara Frame; Photo: Samantha Clark/NPR.