Review: Yo-Yo Ma’s Bach Project Delights Chicago

Yo-Yo Ma loves playing in Chicago. Todd Rosenberg Photography 2019.

Few top tier classical performers have done more to advance music and human dignity than cellist Yo-Yo Ma. He has incorporated public education and outreach into his touring schedule and has made himself an important fixture in several communities. In Chicago, he has been involved in arts education and outreach in the Chicago Public Schools, the Lurie Children’s Hospital, and Music for a More Peaceful Chicago. He has served as artistic adviser to the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and mentor/coach to the Civic Orchestra of Chicago.

Yo-Yo Ma was dwarfed by the vido screen. Todd Rosen Photography 2019.
Yo-Yo Ma onstage at the Jay Pritzker Pavilion. Todd Rosenberg Photography 2019

For many years Ma was involved in the Silkroad Project, which was devoted to bridging cultural and racial divides with music. His most recent outreach effort, The Bach Project, was inspired by music he has cherished in the 60 years since he first started playing it at the ripe old age of 4: the six Suites for solo Cello by Johann Sebastian Bach. Ma recently recorded them for the third time, and he has taken the Bach Project to 36 different locales. In these performances, Ma is playing the six Suites in numerical order without intermission, only briefly pausing between each—non-stop music making for over two straight hours.

In Chicago the Bach Project was a two-day event, starting with a free concert at Millennium Park on Thursday evening. This reviewer has never seen the Jay Pritzker Pavillion and lawn more packed, raucous, and fired up for a classical performance. The stage was set up with a single chair and black backdrop, above which hung a large video screen. To a tremendous ovation, Ma entered the stage waving his cello over his head and smiling as wide as is physically possible.

Yo-Yo Ma performed the Bach Project
Yo-Yo Ma loves playing Bach’s Cello Suites in Chicago. Photo by M Kaye Wilson.

Bach’s Cello Suites occupy a special place in the classical music repertoire, and not just in the world of music for cello. The six Suites are similarly structured six-movement works in musical forms traditionally associated with dance (which, to modern ears, may seem remote). They all start with a Prelude of varying styles, followed by up-tempo Allemandes and Courantes. The fourth movements are slow, introspective Sarabandes, and they all conclude with faster Gigues. The Fifth movements are Menuettes, Bourees, or Gavottes.

As a single body of work, the Cello Suites explore the complete range of human feelings and emotions in music that rarely gets more powerful. In the program notes and comments from the stage, Ma described how this music has served him as an emotional refuge, a place he has returned to every so often. As he said, “It’s’ not about getting it right, it’s about getting right mind.” He also explained his affection for our city and his appreciation for the efforts he sees Chicagoans take to help people in need.

This special affection showed up dramatically in Ma’s performance on Thursday night, as evident by his constant, happy demeanor in the opening Suite No 1 in G-Major. This is one of the lighter Suites of the set, but even in those moments of tension—and there are several—the smile never left his face. As a musician, his talent is so strong, he has the ability to make everything seem easy to approach.

Yo-Yo MA and Jim Peterik mentor Little Kids Rock.
Yo-Yo Ma and guitarist Jim Peterik perform with Little Kids Rock: vocalist Logan Kane, guitarist Vincent Molden, bassist Oswaldo Ramos, and drummer Armand Andry. Todd Rosenberg Photography.

Of course, Millennium Park is a difficult place to make and hear classical music. Thursday night’s performance got all the way to the beginning of second Suite before sirens wailed on the surrounding streets and helicopters sounded overhead. Also, the audience on the lawn, which sometimes cannot hear the quieter notes nor see the performer clearly on the video screen, may start the applause before the work is actually finished. Ma discovered this phenomenon upon finishing the first Suite’s Prelude, when he paused to catch his breath, only to be drowned out by the audience appreciation. As a countermeasure Ma stopped pausing between movements, which added a challenge to an already strenuous performance.

The differences among the Suites showed up immediately in Suite no. 2 in the darker key of d-minor. Unlike the first Suite, the opening Prelude in the second Suite (sirens aside) is slow, with a lot more tension, which was reflected in Ma’s labored expressions. Throughout this and the other Suites, he paid careful attention to dynamic change, marvelously following loud passages with remarkably quiet contemplation. In the Menuets, he carefully kept up the tempo while preserving dynamic intensity.

Yo-Yo Ma was part of Make Music Chicago with the Civic Orchestra. Photo by Louis Harris.
Yo-Yo Ma joined the Civic Orchestra of Chicago on the Riverwalk as part of Make Music Chicago. Photo by Louis Harris.

Before turning to Suite no. 3 in C-major, Ma addressed the audience and noted that it was the most popular of the Suites. The opening Prelude is of the lighter variety that ends in a dramatic flourish that he captured with marvelous finesse. He broke right into the light hearted Allemande, which he milked for every drop of playfulness. The Gigue also offered lots of fun moments that Ma basked in.

The high point of the evening was the Suite no. 5 in c-minor, which Ma explained to be the one that resonates the most with him. His performance had the feel of a meditation. It has a lot of fugal elements, and Ma excelled at bringing out the different melodic lines in the Prelude, the most intense movement of all of the Suites. Playing a multi-voice fugue is a major challenge on a single instrument, and Ma absolutely nailed it. Impressive as this was, the performance of the slow, airy Sarabande came straight out of a dream. Following the intensity of Suite no. 5, the light and sunny Suite no. 6 in D-major, while well played, seemed like an afterthought.

But the concert didn’t end there. Before Ma had even left the stage, the curtain was removed to reveal a rock band set up with amplifiers and a complete drum kit setup. Moments later, Ma introduced Little Kids Rock, a program devoted to expanding music education in schools. Ma and Chicago guitar legend Jim Peterik were joined onstage by vocalist Logan Kane, guitarist Vincent Molden, bassist Oswaldo Ramos, and drummer Armand Andry, each of whom recently graduated from CPS middle school.

The Bach Project in Chicago continued on Friday, when Ma had a fully planned out day. In the morning, he was scheduled to perform at a tree-planting event in North Lawndale. In the afternoon, he was to speak on a panel about culture’s role in combating violence with Mayor Lori Lightfoot and others at the National Museum of Mexican Art in Pilsen.

Yo-Yo Ma chats with Civic Orchestra players and soloist John Hefferman (back turned). Photo by Louis Harris.

During rush hour he joined members of the Civic Orchestra of Chicago for a rousing rendition of Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto no. 4 in G-major on the Riverwalk, as part of Make Music Chicago. It is always marvelous to watch a musician of Ma’s stature lend his playing and experience to a young ensemble that, in this case, had only one other cellist.

The setting was also astonishing: the El’s green and pink line trains rumbled overhead, traffic on lower Wacker Drive hummed behind, and boats on the river motored right on by. Even though the upper strings were not completely in tune, the sound was still good. Especially noteworthy was violin soloist John Heffernan, who mastered one of music’s most riveting violin parts.

All in all, the Bach Project allowed Yo-Yo Ma to put on a dazzling series of events that went well beyond something one might expect from a simple concert appearance. He showed that he cares, not just about the music he’s playing, but also about the communities who come to hear it.

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Louis Harris

A lover of music his whole life, Louis Harris has written extensively from the early days of punk and alternative rock. More recently he has focused on classical music, especially chamber ensembles. He has reviewed concerts, festivals, and recordings and has interviewed composers and performers. He has paid special attention to Chicago’s rich and robust contemporary art music scene. He occasionally writes poetry and has a published novel to his credit, 32 Variations on a Theme by Basil II in the Key of Washington, DC. He now lives on the north side of Chicago, which he considers to be the greatest city in the country, if not the world.