One hour and 20 minutes into his marathon recital of Bach’s suites for unaccompanied cello at Leipzig’s historic Nikolaikirche, as applause erupts after the Fourth Suite, Yo-Yo Ma does something at once strange and typical. Cello in one hand, he hops off the podium and starts jumping up and down, waving his arms and beaming as he encourages the audience to join him in an impromptu aerobics class. Then, quick as a flash, silence is restored, focus regained, and he launches into the sombre Fifth Suite.
“People know when they come they’re signing up for two hours and 15 minutes of uninterrupted music, but it’s nice to sort of say, ‘I see you and I know the pews may be hard’,” Ma explains with a laugh when we meet at Kaffeehaus Riquet, just around the corner from the church, for brunch the next morning. “Music gives you a ton of information subliminally; it’s not just an aural performance, it’s visual, it’s the body language you’re receiving from the audience and relaying back,” he adds. “There was an elderly gentleman last night who was smiling and just really into the music, and I would look at him once in a while and ... ” — he mimes a smile and nod of recognition. “I like to pick out certain people and just occasionally play for them.”
Heir to a legacy left by Pablo Casals and Mstislav Rostropovich, the greatest cellists of the 20th century, Ma is now pre-eminent — but he is loved not just for his musicianship but for the openheartedness he brings to his art.
Now 62, he has performed for eight US presidents — notably at Obama’s inauguration — and has sold 10m albums globally across a career that has stretched six decades. A child star, he has always handled his success with humility, and displayed an innate desire to connect with other people and different cultures. Today, as the world appears more divided than ever, he is building bridges, bringing audiences from all walks of life into his charismatic orbit — but, I wonder, does he draw the line at Donald Trump?
Ma’s repertoire stretches from Frédéric Chopin to Philip Glass, Luigi Boccherini to Astor Piazzolla, but it is Bach’s cello suites for which he is rightly renowned; the Prelude of the First Suite from his 1997 recording is the most-streamed classical track ever in the US.
“Bach’s music has been a great companion, a great friend through thick and thin,” he says, and he describes the role it played in his father’s life when, as a student in Paris during the blackout of the second world war, he would learn the violin sonatas and partitas during the day so that he could play them by heart at night. “And when I started performing the suites in my twenties I would get letters from people, who were maybe studying or taking exams, going through a horrible time, saying Bach got me through it,” he says. “So, this has always been very special music.”
The cello suites, thought to have been composed just before Bach moved to Leipzig to begin his cantorship at the Thomaskirche in 1723, were little known until 1890, when a 13-year-old Casals discovered the Grützmacher edition of the works in a junk shop in Barcelona and brought them to wider attention. Today, they are considered among Bach’s supreme achievements, and treasured for their profound examination of the human condition. They are also admired for the ferocious technical and emotional demands they place on the cellist — a challenge that is all the greater if they are performed, as is Ma’s way, entirely from memory. I suggest Bach would have been astonished by last night’s performance. “Oh, I don’t know, I think he would have nodded and had a beer,” he says with a laugh. It’s a classic Ma response; throughout our conversation his thoughtful, sometimes elliptical sentences — delivered in a soft legato-staccato lilt — are frequently undercut with a self-deprecating gag.
We scout around for a waitress. On paper Kaffeehaus Riquet looked perfect: a proper Mitteleuropean coffee house — established in 1745, in fact, five years before Bach’s death. I anticipated oodles of atmosphere and strudel. The present building is a faded art nouveau confection, with gold mosaics and two large elephant heads either side of the entrance; might the cantor himself have swung by the original café for a kaffee?
I suggest Bach would have been astonished by last night’s performance. ‘Oh, I don’t know, I think he would have nodded and had a beer,’ he laughs
Reality has been quick to assert itself. Inside, there hangs an air of sad utilitarianism (milk jugs sit ready-poured on Formica tables) that speaks of the Eastern Bloc past, and what the staff lack in charm they make up for with haughty indifference. No, there’s no reservation, they don’t do reservations (that table with the reservation sign on it is for the chef) and, no, the quieter room upstairs is closed today. Ma says jet lag and a bad night’s sleep have stifled his appetite but we order an espresso (Ma) and a cappuccino (me) to be getting on with.
But back to Bach, and specifically The Bach Project. Ma’s latest initiative will play out over the next two years in 36 recitals of the cello suites (last night’s was the third) across six continents and 36 days of debate, outreach and action around culture’s role in society. “I started out, maybe five years ago, thinking culture should have a seat at the table of economics and politics,” Ma says, “but I’ve now changed somewhat in that I now think culture is the table from which economics and politics can thrive.” Central to the whole project, he explains, is the universality of Bach’s music.
“I think of Bach as a scientist-composer, and why? I think he has three qualities that consistently come out in his music. The first is that he tries to look at nature, and human nature, objectively . . . The second is that he starts out being completely empathetic to the human condition . . . [and] the third is that he’s not the central narrator. He knew who he was, and he was not shy about his knowledge, but he was not at the centre of the narrative.”
As our coffees arrive (mine is decorated, somewhat implausibly, with a cocoa heart) he expands on Bach’s interest in multiple perspectives, as reflected in the six-movement structure of each suite. “He says: ‘I don’t even know who’s going to listen to this, but I’m going to make it understandable by just choosing dances. And, even though I haven’t travelled very much, I’m going to take dances from old Germany, French dances, Italian dances, even a Bedouin dance that started in north Africa, then went to Spain and France — the Sarabande,’” he says, referring to one of the central movements of each suite. “So, physically he didn’t travel very much, but mentally he was everywhere.”
Ma’s approach is similarly worldly. As well as founding Silkroad, a project to unite classical and folk musicians across Asia and the Middle East, in 1998, he has enjoyed a long friendship with the classical pianist Kathryn Stott, and collaborations with jazz vocalist Bobby McFerrin and the Memphis street dancer Lil Buck.
The son of Chinese parents, Ma was born in Paris before the family moved to the US when he was still a child, and his experience as an immigrant (albeit a privileged one) has informed all aspects of his career. In a charming black-and-white film clip, available on YouTube, the young cellist — accompanied by his older sister, Yeou-Cheng Ma, on the piano — is introduced to an audience including John and Jacqueline Kennedy by Leonard Bernstein: “Now here’s a cultural image for you to ponder as you listen: a seven-year-old Chinese cellist playing old French music for his new American compatriots.”
We must order, I say. Ma tries to look enthused by the menu and leaps up to find a waitress, but there’s a misunderstanding and she arrives with our bill. A brief to-and-fro ensues before she agrees to take our food order: a spinach and ham stuffed omelette for me, and a mixed salad and a roll for him. We ask for two more coffees.
“She looked very severe,” Ma whispers. “Oh dear, she was not pleased. This is not good. We’ll have to make it up to her. Put on your best game face,” he giggles conspiratorially.
Ma was just four years old when he started learning the Prelude of the First Suite with his father. He first recorded these pieces in his twenties, and this was followed by another release in 1997, titled Inspired by Bach, for which Ma collaborated with artists from other disciplines, including the garden designer Julie Moir Messervy — and, in a feat of imaginative determination, the 18th-century architect Piranesi. “I was already working with the idea that this music could be helpful: what would happen if that music were taken inside the minds of some very creative people?” Ma has announced that Six Evolutions, his latest recording of the suites, released last month to coincide with The Bach Project, will be his last.
“During the recording Steve Epstein, the producer, played for me preludes of the First Suite from each time I recorded it and it was interesting to do the taste testing. ‘A little young, don’t you think?’,” he says, pretending to sip wine, “ ‘not much of a nose but promising. The second one was ‘yes, I detect complexity, it could use a bit of maturity, I think. The next one is ‘hmm, definitely over the hill’,” he says, giddy with laughter. Surely, he will only have more to add to these pieces with age? Why rule out another recording in 15 years’ time? “Because enough is enough!”
Brunch is served. A dispiriting arrangement of lettuce leaves, tomato cubes and sweetcorn kernels is set in front of Ma, and a roll arrives on a separate plate. My omelette looks much more appetising — a light pillow filled with spinach and chopped ham in a white sauce — and is tepid but tasty.
So, I come to the inevitable question: would he perform for President Trump?
“First of all, there are some layers of values that I think are really important. The first one is I think civic discourse is absolutely essential . . . There are places where civic discourse should take place, whether it’s a state function or because someone’s visiting ... It’s like, you have disagreements with family but on holidays you agree not to talk about certain subjects,” he laughs.
But surely, I push him, Bach could give Trump a valuable lesson in humility; if he asked you to do a private performance . . . ? “Would I play for him on his deathbed? No,” Ma says. “I operate on the premise that absolutely anybody can change, and I also recognise that it’s possible that somebody may never change . . . I also think, just by observing the performance arts world, huge ego is very often matched by huge insecurity.”
In the sleeve notes to Six Evolutions Ma makes a touching reference to his grandson, Teddy, who, he says, will turn 83 in the year 2100. I tell him that as the mother of a three-year-old, I’m interested that he often ranks his appearances on children’s TV shows among his proudest achievements. “Boy? Girl? What’s his name?” Arthur, I reply. “It’s the most important thing,” he says, with a beatific smile. “Appearing on Mister Rogers’ [Neighborhood] and Sesame Street — or in Arthur — it’s going into their world, they’re not coming into my world... to this day there are kids that are now 30 coming backstage and saying, ‘I studied music because I saw this [on TV]’. These little appearances made such deep impressions.”
He enthuses about the values that the late Fred Rogers brought to his show. “So, Mister Rogers aired and within the first year Robert Kennedy was assassinated and they had to deal with that — what does assassination mean? Very hard subjects. Then, after 9/11, after he had retired, he came back on television to talk about what his mother used to tell him in times of crisis. What do you do? Well, you can always look for the helpers.” He continues: “I work with lots of people but what I try to do is locate, in every community, all the people doing great work — who are the helpers?”
Ma’s food remains untouched, but he wants to know what I’ve been writing about recently, and our conversation turns, inescapably, to Brexit. He must dash — he needs to be on the train to Frankfurt — but he would just like to see a photo of my son. Now it’s really time to go. “Say ‘hi’ to Arthur,” he says, as he bustles out of the café — and as the waitress reappears to clear the plates, I watch him melt into the crowded streets: a sage, a superstar, an everyman.
Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2018.