• The Listener
  • North & South
  • Noted
  • RNZ
Gift of music: the Bach Project is taking Yo-Yo Ma to six continents. Photo/Getty Images

Behind the debut NZ visit of master musician Yo-Yo Ma

Making his New Zealand bow, the superstar cellist gives Bach to the community.

When cellist Yo-Yo Ma brings his Bach Project to Christchurch this month, it will be the first New Zealand performance by one of the world’s most famous and charismatic classical musicians. Ma will take the stage alone at the reopened Christchurch Town Hall for a performance of JS Bach’s complete Cello Suites for unaccompanied cello, performing all six without an interval. Music lovers are travelling from throughout New Zealand to hear a classical superstar who has been playing Bach since he was four years old.

Ma’s two-year-long Bach Project is taking him around the world for concerts in 36 locations on six continents. The project has a humanitarian purpose beyond music: alongside each concert is a “Day of Action”, a community event bringing people and organisations together to consider social and local issues, with the slogan “culture connects us”.

“The music,” Ma says, “is a little gift to start these conversations. There’s something about this music that makes things whole.” Bach’s genius, he believes, is to help us ask the question, “What is it that we can do together that we cannot do alone?”

Each of the six Cello Suites is a collection of dances of the period, and Bach’s writing for solo cello is remarkable for brilliantly implied harmonies and counterpoint. Ma suggests that Bach is asking us to complete the music subconsciously, and, as performer, he also tries “to make the listener’s ear work to implicitly fill in the gaps”.

Composed 300 years ago, this music is amongst the most revered Baroque repertoire. A century and a half after Bach’s death, the set was miraculously discovered by legendary Spanish cellist Pablo Casals in a backstreet Barcelona second-hand shop. Casals, then 19, went on to perform and later record all six Suites working from the edition he’d found, which was based on a manuscript copied by the composer’s second wife, Anna Magdalena Bach.

Ma has recorded the Suites three times, in his twenties, forties and sixties, the third a two-disc set subtitled Six Evolutions as part of the Bach Project. The intimate lightness and creative freedom of his playing on the latest album splendidly reveal both the counterpoint complexities and the dance-like quality of Bach’s music.

In April this year, he took his Bach Project to the US-Mexico border, performing the six Suites on a Friday night in San Antonio, Texas, and travelling the next day to play excerpts in both the Texan  border city of Laredo and across the bridge in Nuevo Laredo, Mexico. The two small cities see themselves as a community in spite of the border, and Ma’s gesture was powerfully symbolic.

“In culture,” he said at the time, “we build bridges, not walls. I’ve lived my life at the borders – between cultures, between disciplines, between musics, between generations.”

“Days of Action” are planned alongside Ma’s much-anticipated Christchurch concert and will focus on the Ōtākaro/Avon River, exploring culture’s role in water security and rivers as community resources. Similar events led by Ma elsewhere have sometimes included pop-up public performances. “Music, like all of culture, helps us to understand our environment, each other and ourselves,” he says. “Culture helps us to imagine a better future.”

SIX EVOLUTIONS – Bach Cello Suites, Yo-Yo Ma (Sony Classical)

Yo-Yo Ma The Bach Project, Christchurch Town Hall, November 12, 7.30pm.

This article was first published in the November 9, 2019 issue of the New Zealand Listener.