Aug. 17, 2018 | Tom Huizenga — Why did Laurence Olivier return so often to Shakespeare’s Othello? Why did Ansel Adams keep photographing the Grand Canyon? Obsessed or awestruck, artists revisit great inspirations because they believe there is yet another story to tell – about life, about themselves.
Cellist Yo-Yo Ma brought his great inspiration, and in turn part of his own life story, to an enthusiastic audience packed around the Tiny Desk on a hot summer day. Ma is returning, yet again, to the Six Suites for Unaccompanied Cello by Johann Sebastian Bach, a Mount Everest for any cellist. He has just released his third studio recording of the complete set and is taking the music on a two-year, six-continent tour. Ma’s first recording of the Suites, released in 1983, earned him his first Grammy.
Ma has played the music for 58 years and along the way it’s become something of a practical guide to living, pulling him through hardships and celebrating times of joy. “It’s like forensic musicology,” Ma told the Tiny Desk audience. “Embedded in the way I play is actually, in many ways, everything I’ve experienced.”
The undulating “Prelude” from the Suite No. 1 was the very first music Ma ever played. He was four years old. The soulful “Sarabande” from the Sixth Suite has served dual purposes, Ma explained. “I’ve played this piece both at friends’ weddings, and unfortunately also at their memorial services.” And the exuberant “Gigue,” from the Third Suite, with its toe-tapping beat, reminds us that Bach was far from a stuffed wig. Such is this sturdy, versatile and benevolent music, offering a full range of the human condition.
And then there is Ma. Certainly one of the most brilliant cellists of modern times, he’s also a thoughtful, curious humanitarian, with an endless thirst to understand, celebrate, and connect disparate cultures of the world.
He’s also a true mensch. As soon as he arrived at our office to play, Ma unpacked his cello – a famed 1712 Stradivarius – and immediately handed it over, with his bow, and said, “Here play something.” It didn’t matter that I’d never held a cello. It was just another one of Yo-Yo Ma’s warm and welcoming gestures, another way to open up music to anyone and everyone.
J.S. Bach: “Prelude (from Suite No. 1 for Solo Cello)”
J.S. Bach: “Sarabande (from Suite No. 6 for Solo Cello)”
J.S. Bach: “Gigue (from Suite No. 3 for Solo Cello)”
Producers: Tom Huizenga, Kara Frame; Creative Director: Bob Boilen; Audio Engineer: Josh Rogosin; Videographers: Morgan Noelle Smith, Kara Frame; Photo: Samantha Clark/NPR.
[Applause] believe it or not this was the very first piece of music I started on the cello when I was four years old one measure at a time first day second day third day you get the idea now all of you do homework have done homework some days it's easier than others like yesterday slightly different right so so it's actually not painful to learn something if you do it incrementally so that's so I lived with this music for 58 years plus four that's my age now I'm gonna play you so I've lived with all of this music all my life so actually embedded in the way I play is actually in many ways everything I've experienced which is kind of interesting it's like forensic musicology you know you open up the cadaver you could see what happened what kind of bones they chewed on and whatever you know you can figure everything out so it's the same thing with music you can actually figure out timing what you're listening for what you're looking for what is was the purpose behind something so the next piece I'm going to play for you is a work that it's a sour bond from the sixth suite I just played the prelude of the first suite by BA and the Sarabande is very interesting because it comes from many places some people say came from Guatemala some people say came from Mexico it certainly came from Moorish Spain and so some people say it came to Spain through Portugal 12th century but it's and and in Morocco people say that was a Bedouin dance danced by women so this was it this sire bond is actually at the heart of the suite because it is the heart and and why do I say that because I play this piece at both friends weddings and unfortunately also at their memorial services so it has a dual purpose so think about that the sorrow by number six sweet [Applause] [Applause] [Applause] thank you so for the last piece for the tiny desk concert I'm going to play a tiny jig so this is usually the last movement in the Suites and it's interesting because you know he goes from old dances to essentially folk or popular dances so here is this German composer taking in a jig and putting it in in this work the third suite [Applause]