The news that Yo-Yo Ma, the 19-time Grammy-winning cellist and UN Messenger of Peace, would finally be making his South African debut sent serious ripples in so many directions, and rightfully so.
He was born into a musical family, his Mother a singer and his father a violinist and Professor of Music. By the age of four he was considered a child prodigy and, at age seven, performed for John F. Kennedy. Spanning six decades, his career is scattered with virtuosic achievement.
To put it bluntly, he is a classical giant, nay, god! And he was SA-bound.
In August 2018, Yo-Yo Ma launched The Bach Project, a two-year world tour at 36 iconic venues across six continents, to perform Johann Sebastian Bach’s six suites for solo cello. Alongside the 36 concerts, Ma’s goal is to immerse himself in foreign cultures not only through music, but also through community-based projects and collaborations.
Yo-Yo Ma chose Kirstenbosch National Botanical Gardens, a World Heritage Site, as the stage for his South African debut and, on the 8th of February, for the first time in what had been an especially windy couple of days in the Mother City, the weather was perfect.
Camping chairs and cooler boxes of every variety were being carried up the walkway, forming one of the longest queues I’d seen in months. While I wasn’t particularly thrilled by the winding distance between me and my moment with Ma, I was exhilarated by how many people had shown up to experience a magic of the rarest kind.
I was sat in the perfect position, in full view of the stage. When I turned to look behind me, I couldn’t see how far up the embankment the audience went. I was definitely in the perfect position.
Yo-Yo Ma walks onto stage, brandishing his cello in one hand and bow in the other. We welcome him with a hearty applause, and he responds by lifting his arms above his head and waving around his instrument excitedly. Everyone understood that they were in the presence of greatness.
A plain black cloth is draped behind him to create a minimal backdrop. Ma positions himself and sits down on an unassuming black chair behind his cello. He closes his eyes to clear his mind, inhales deeply but softly, picks up his bow, and begins to play.
He is exactly where he belongs, completely at home as he expertly navigates his instrument. Whether a feather-light stroke of the bow or a jagged jolt of the arm, Ma’s understanding of control and dynamics creates a wide range of emotions felt, at that exact moment, by everyone in the audience. And everyone in their own way.
Yo-Yo Ma plays two of the six Bach suites before he addresses the audience. As suite three commences, he dedicates it to South Africa and, more specifically, Cape Town, with a culture rich in creativity, a culture he feels connected to. There is a sense of hopefulness in this particular suite, an innocence and a playfulness that flashes across his face with every flashing smile.
As he concludes the third suite, the audience can no longer resist and are up on their feet for a standing ovation, which he meets with a humble bow. He warns of Bach’s creativity and experimentation in suite four and his admiration for the German composer is blatant. He closes his eyes again as he focuses on the suite ahead.
A timely chill accompanies his introduction to suite five as he dedicates it to anyone who has ever experienced loss, of self, of someone else, of health… His now tattered bow wails away in empathy as he pushes and pulls across the strings and ends suite six.
Yo-Yo Ma thanks us for listening and for participating in his cultural experiment before announcing a guest performer. He proceeds to invite The One Who Sings (Zolani Maholi) onto stage to perform Johnny Clegg’s “Asimbonanga”.
Mahola invites the audience to raise their phone torches to the sky to show our appreciation for the true mastery that we had just experienced. Between the sea of light we were creating, the silhouette of the Mountain to the left of the stage, and the full moon hanging right above it, Yo-Yo Ma’s Bach Project was a once-in-a-lifetime musical privilege that touched us all on a spiritual level.
Feature pic courtesy of Austin Mann.