The Bach Project, Yo-Yo Ma
Sydney Opera House. November 4
A bare stage with a single chair – no flowers or clutter – nothing but a solitary great cellist playing Bach was sufficient to concentrate the minds of two and a half thousand people for a hushed hundred minutes.
Yo-Yo Ma played Bach’s Six Suites for solo cello without a break, without leaving the stage, indeed without so much as a glass of water or wiped brow. The First Suite in G was light and untroubled, Ma unfolding the Prelude’s undulating arpeggiations without contortion, allowing the Allemande its natural momentum and giving the Courante crispness without spikiness.
In Suite No. 2 in D minor, he dug into the string more firmly, creating deeper and darker expression. The chords in the Sarabande drew out the line with singular intensity but were never over-pressed. In the Third Suite in C, it was as though the sun came out, its Prelude shaded brightly but delicately and with a touch of flamboyance. In the Sarabande, Ma edged the lowest and highest notes with subtle iridescence as though bending and moulding the line across the whole instrument. The Fourth Suite in E flat radiated with joy, its rolling figurations gilded with beauty of tone so tangible one could almost touch it. Honouring Wiradjuri woman Ann Weldon, who had acknowledged Gadigal land at the start and spoken of her separated birth in Cowra, Ma dedicated the Fifth Suite in C minor (played without returning to Bach’s scordatura) to loss.
Taking the Allemande slower with more expressive freedom, Ma showed a remarkable capacity to open out and sustain the line. The lonely winding melody of the Sarabande was a particular highlight. The energy of the Sixth Suite in D grew from the quiet close of the Fifth without pause, its high range (originally written for a five stringed instrument) providing gleaming moments of quiet exhilaration.
In The Bach Project Ma plays Bach’s suites in 36 locations, each followed by a day of action, in Sydney’s case a gathering to discuss rising temperatures. The aim is for culture to connect people, as it did for the two and a half thousand who unanimously leapt to their feet at the close.