Supporting the Arts in Western Massachusetts and Beyond

August 16, 2019

REVIEW: Tanglewood, Bach, Yo-Yo Ma

Tanglewood, Lenox, MA
August 11, 2019
by Karoun Charkoudian

Yo-Yo Ma photo by Jason Bell
Imagine playing a musical instrument alone for two and a half hours straight without an intermission, in front of thousands of people. A feat of stamina -- physically, mentally, and emotionally. Who was up for this? Yo-Yo Ma, of course. This night was a part of Ma’s “Bach Project,” performing Johann Sebastian Bach’s six suites for solo cello in one sitting in 36 locations around the world.

After sitting through grueling traffic (because two Tanglewood concerts were scheduled back to back, both with big names), the crowds gathered, looking forward to a 7:30pm concert, only to find out that the concert was rescheduled to 8pm. The evening was off to a late start and the audience wasn’t happy.

Yo-Yo Ma, with incredible energy and vivaciousness, had clearly been working with audiences for decades and understood, not only was this concert an Olympic feat for him, but it was a feat for the audience as well. He included a “7th inning stretch” after Suite No. 3, and between Suite No. 5 and Suite No. 6 he did not stop for applause, only paused for a few seconds, so no audience members could slip away in hopes to beat traffic. For those who did stay until the end, they earned a special surprise when James Taylor appeared on stage to play the encore (this concert was in fact sponsored by Caroline and James Taylor in honor of Andrew Previn).

The Bach Suites are all structured similarly, all with seven movements with almost identical names. Highlights were the deep extended regal chords of the Sarabande, the dance-like feel of the Menuett (sometimes replaced by a Gavotte or Bourree), and the fast and fiery Gigue which concluded every Suite. The third and sixth suite are purportedly the most difficult, (claims the average cellist), and the suites were numbered based on chronological time, when they were written by Bach.

Ma’s vision is to celebrate humanity and to bring people conjointly through The Bach Project. Ma announced that this was a celebration of coming together. As we struggle to make meaning in our lives we can look to Bach. Bach’s writing is about human nature and the infinite variety of life; this music can unite us while helping to understand each other.