It’s hard not to impose a narrative on such a program as the one presented by MetArtsLive at such a time as this; it perhaps would be hard to read too much into it, in fact. Thapelo Masita, a young, black cellist from the Free State of South Africa, playing in front of a centuries old European tapestry in a transplanted French abbey centuries older still, sitting on what was once the Rockefeller estate. There were centuries of layers of history embedded in the presentation – live streamed by New York City’s Metropolitan Museum of Art from its uptown site, The Cloisters – and little of it very kind to people who look like Mastia.

Thapelo Masita © MetLiveArts
Thapelo Masita
© MetLiveArts

Perhaps so as not to risk the point being missed, the program began with an statement from the artist displayed on the screen, reading in part:

In times of turmoil, we all choose to focus on that which is most essential in our lives. Our species has survived this way for thousands of years. Only once all danger has subsided do we try to heal. For me, the challenges the world faces today demand that we rethink this process. I believe that it is during this time, while we are in the fiery furnace, that we must transform our thinking so that we might come out better than we were before. The alternative is far too dangerous.

It was, perhaps, not quite direct, and yet the point seemed hard to miss. 

The performance began with Masita’s own arrangement of the spiritual There is a Balm in Gilead and, as such, a Biblical reference to healing, and left barely a pause before setting into the first movement of the Cello Suite no. 1 in G Major, BWV 1007. The first movement was played at a confident clip – not so fast as to be showy, but with a certainty in the delivery. By the third, he had almost reached a gallop, the slightest hint of a smile curling at the corners of his mouth. The sarabande was nearly a lament. 

Thapelo Masita © MetLiveArts
Thapelo Masita
© MetLiveArts

The movements were presented in pairs, with songs from the African and African American traditions interspersed. The South African song Ha Le Mpotsa Tshepo Yaka (When Asked Wherein My Hope Lies) fell between the second and third movements, Amazing Grace between the fourth and fifth, and the recital concluded with the final movement of Coleridge-Taylor Perkinson’s 1980 Black/Folk Song Suite for Solo Cello, a stunningly insistent piece, exciting, figures that seemed to mirror the Bach, but as demands rather than prayers. Bach may have dominated the program, but he neither began nor ended it.

 Only occasionally did Masita open his eyes, and then generally looking skyward (rarely toward the music stand that stood at the ready). Much of the time, his head rolled, his face twisted and contorted with an intensity of presence to back it up. Such expressiveness could go unnoticed in the concert hall and could conceivably be a distraction in a tightly focused camera shot, but here it gave a humanity to the performance. His playing was assured, his face aspirational, imploring. 

Interspersing Bach (and other long gone composers) with more recent works is a common – perhaps too common – strategy for updating and personalizing compositions with generations of performance histories. It can be an effective tool, as it was here, a way to make a statement without stating it outright (Masita didn’t speak during the half hour performance). But even more effective is to lay claim to the music in the playing of it, to have internalized it to the point that the recital becomes self-expression. Fortunately, Masita did this as well, making his own statement from Bach’s music, not just in the contextualization but in the playing.

Watch the video here
*****