The magic moment when twilight turns the sky pastel pink and crickets start their evening serenade found Yo-Yo Ma blazing through the final dramatic run of Bachʼs Suite no. 4 in E flat major for solo cello. The setting was Blossom Music Center, the Cleveland Orchestraʼs summer home, and the second stop on what will be a multi-year, six-continent tour promoting Six Evolutions, his latest recording of Bachʼs complete cello suites.

Yo-Yo Ma plays Bach at Blossom © Roger Mastroianni
Yo-Yo Ma plays Bach at Blossom
© Roger Mastroianni

The atmosphere at Blossom was more akin to a rock concert, with giant twin video screens flanking the stage and more than 10,000 people filling the pavilion and spread across the expansive lawn. The open stage, big enough to accommodate a full symphony orchestra and large chorus, seemed even more of a mismatch for one musician playing two hours of intimate chamber music. But Ma, arguably the worldʼs most popular and well-known classical musician, is a larger-than-life presence who can fill any space with riveting, intensely personal work.

And there may be no work more personal to him than Bachʼs Cello Suites. He learned the first one from his father at the age of four, and by the time he was eight could play all six from memory. Ma first recorded them in his 20s – an offer he initially resisted, he wrote in the program notes, feeling too young to take on such a monumental task. Recovering from spinal surgery at the time, he found a new lease on life in the music, which he recorded again in his 40s for a DVD project called Inspired by Bach that paired his performance with film and dance interpretations of the suites.

This time Ma brings not only a longer view to the suites, but a conviction that they embody his passion for a shared sense of humanity and the solace, understanding and cultural connectivity great works of art confer. Before playing the final two suites, he dedicated them to “all the incredible people who are there to help others”. Coming from anyone else this would have seemed mawkish, especially when he asked all the military veterans in the audience to stand for a round of appreciative applause. From Ma it came across as deeply heartfelt, both in spoken interludes and the music.

Yo-Yo Ma © Roger Mastroianni
Yo-Yo Ma
© Roger Mastroianni

From the opening movement of the First Suite, his absolute mastery of the suites was clear. The tempo was brisk and the style generally lean and muscular, Old World music with a New World burnish. His phrasing, dynamics and technique were so fluid and spontaneous that at times it was like watching a jazz musician do virtuoso improvisation – stretching a note or line here, inserting a pregnant pause there, drawing colors out of the ornamentation, feeling the music as much as playing it, most of the time with his eyes closed.

Ma typically brings a lot of emotion to his performances, and this one was no different. The deep notes dug seriously deep, the dance rhythms would have fit nicely into a contemporary fiddle band (like his Goat Rodeo collaboration), the bright passages soared and the most somber of the suites, No. 5, sounded like an extended elegy with occasional tiny chimes of hope. The interpretation was all Maʼs, but the overarching feeling of the performance was communal, a sense of calm and unity amid troubled and divisive times. 

It helped that Ma is a consummate showman. He chatted up the audience like a pro, flattering the city (“Cleveland is great in the summer!”), dropping some local references and offering extended soliloquies on what individual suites mean to him. In between some of them he got to his feet, jumped around and invited the audience to join him in doing calisthenics. Understandably – even for a seasoned performer, playing all six suites in a single sitting, without intermission, is an endurance test. By the time he got to No. 5, Ma sounded a bit fatigued. 

With 34 cities to go on this particular tour, he will need to stay limber. If his Cleveland performance was any indication, the enthusiasm he has for the music and the energy he brings to it will have the power to entrance listeners the way it has Ma for nearly six decades.