Yo-Yo Ma takes Bach suites to Hearst Greek Theatre with virtuosic performance

Karen Chow/Senior Staff

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When Yo-Yo Ma enters a venue, the reaction is immediate. The 62-year-old cellist is synonymous with classical music itself, and even after decades of recording is still at the forefront of his craft. So it was only appropriate that as Ma took the stage Sunday at the Hearst Greek Theatre, the crowd was rapturous just at the sight of the lauded musician.

Once the initial hype of the audience cooled down, Ma took a seat. The Greek Theatre itself was set up in a manner that perfectly accommodated a solo performer: Ma was positioned on a riser at the front of the stage such that he was the immediate point of focus. The only accessories onstage were a microphone and a bottle of water, which both went untouched until the conclusion of the final suite. Saying nothing, with only a wave and nod toward the audience, Ma began his marathon.

Ma’s selection for the evening was Bach’s complete cello suites, a veritable behemoth of six suites with a run time of about 2 hours and 15 minutes. Ma has said the suites have been a sort of “constant companion” throughout his musical journey, and he recently released his third interpretation of the works last August. That thread of well-worn companionship was evident in his performance, with each note fine-tuned in its delivery. The suites were lengthy, but Ma’s sheer stamina and expertise made them accessible and exciting.

Each suite was brought to the fore throughout the evening, and Ma was able to make each distinct in its own motifs and intricacies. The first, Suite No.1 in G Major is a light reverie, distinct for its arpeggio notes and a light, longing tone. The first notes of this suite are instantly recognizable, buried in some sort of universal inner cortex filled with Bachian riffs. The second suite, by contrast, begins much lower, its notes deeper and girthier. Each section transitioned deftly into the next under Ma’s expert hand, allemande into courante, and so on.

Ma only paused for brief breaks, ending each suite with an exuberant flourish of his bow, then standing to take in the always-roaring applause and standing ovations. The end of each suite was like a release of breath — not from Ma, who maintained his maestro-cool, but from the audience as a collective.

Considering the scale, skill and run time of the performance, Ma managed to incorporate some welcome moments of levity into the show. Throughout the concert, planes overhead would momentarily warp the sound within the theater, which Ma acknowledged with a grin and eye roll midperformance.

In a final sprint, Ma didn’t take a break in between the last two suites, opting for a dash through the quickfire gigue of Suite No. 6 in D Major. After the end of the final suite, he took the mic, addressing the crowd for the first time and in state of total calm. He gave his thanks to the audience members for sticking through the show and expressed that he “felt that we were in this together.”

As a final breath of fresh air to end the evening, Ma turned to “The Song of the Birds,” a short piece by Catalonian composer and cellist Pablo Casals, who recorded the Bach suites in the early 20th century and helped to bring them back into the classical canon. Ma cited Casals, who was a fierce oppositionist to Spanish dictator Francisco Franco, as a source of inspiration both musically and in his political convictions. Ma also alluded to politics as he addressed the crowd and offered this encore as a sort of response to the current political climate.

The evening ended on the warbling notes of the short song, which emulated the chirps of birds in the din of a thicket. It was a total departure from the past hours of Bach, but a welcome one, and a final testament to Ma’s virtuosity.

Contact Camryn Bell at [email protected].