You may remember that in my Music Beat column several weeks ago, I mentioned seeing a picture from the Los Angeles Times that showed cellist Yo-Yo Ma as a tiny figure on stage in the massive Hollywood Bowl engaged in playing Johann Sebastian Bach’s six suites for solo cello: one little figure in one little chair holding one little object, a cello, playing Bach’s masterworks covering two-and-a-half hours.
LA Times critic Mark Swed wrote: “A large Bowl crowd, attracted by the presence of a superstar, might be presumed to want merely a picnic and a nice late-summer night out. This audience (close to 17,000) sat in nearly unbelievable rapt attention focused on Ma as each musically complex and austere six-movement suite followed suite.”
Earlier in the year, Ma joined the Chicago Symphony Orchestra for a world premiere performance of a cello concerto by Esa-Pekka Salonen, a half-hour piece that Chicago Tribune critic John von Rhein wrote “ends with Ma climbing to a vertiginous high B flat on the cello’s A string, as if he were reaching for the stars. Cosmic imagery — racing comets and the ‘stylized chaos’ of the universe, to quote the composer —plays a central role in Salonen’s compositional thinking here, as does throwing prickly technical challenges in the cellist’s way and daring him, with a good-natured wink, to surmount them. Which, of course, he did with amazing nonchalance.”
Granted, the classical arts have always been for fewer numbers and, as nonprofits, with a need for assistance in being paid for. But a huge audience sitting through the Bach cello suites: that’s proof the centuries-old music still has things to tell us and do for us. And the musician who has spent a lifetime tightening his grasp around the Bach is the same musician who sought out a composer of today to write a stupendously challenging piece for him, a performance of which brought jubilant reaction from the audience gathered for the occasion in Chicago’s Orchestra Hall.