LEIPZIG, Germany — While it’s impossible not to think of Johann Sebastian Bach as you walk through this city, where he spent the final decades of his life, what little remains of his world here has been altered almost beyond recognition.
The house where he and his family lived was demolished a century ago. Next door, St. Thomas Church, where Bach was a cantor from 1723 to 1750, was overhauled in Gothic Revival style in the 1880s. St. Nicholas Church, where the “St. John Passion” was first performed in 1724, got its current cupcake-pastel interior decades after Bach died.
And Bach certainly would never have heard Arabic being widely spoken, as it is now, in the bustling, largely immigrant neighborhood of Neustadt. It was here, on a mild weekend afternoon recently, that Yo-Yo Ma bounded into a room in a community center, Stradivarius cello in hand, and moved swiftly around a seated circle of adults and children, grinning and giving one long high five.
“The most important thing is to bring all of yourself into a moment,” he said the next day. “If for even one second you’re like, ‘Oh, I have to go do this,’ people are really smart. They can see when someone is there, or just not quite there.”
Ma, 62, was entirely there. He stayed in the community center only about half an hour, but without seeming rushed, he blended disarming generosity — he gave two budding cellists his instrument to try out in front of the group — with a kind of subtle social work.
“Learning a new piece is like moving from one place to another,” he said in answer to someone’s question, connecting music-making to the lives of the migrants without making too big a deal of it.
If Ma seemed wholly at ease, a veteran politician delightedly working a town hall, it is because his visit, blending Bach and social responsibility, was nothing unusual in the career of the musician of our civic life. The one we call upon to play at the funeral Mass of a senator and the inauguration of a president, the anniversary of a terrorist attack and the commemoration of the victims of a bombing.
And what Ma plays at moments like those, to make us cry and then soothe us, is, more often than not, a selection from the Bach cello suites. These six works are the Everest of his instrument’s repertory, offering a guide to nearly everything a cello can do — as well as, many believe, charting a remarkably complete anatomy of emotion and aspiration.
Last month, Ma released his third and, in all likelihood, final recording of the suites, a relaxed, confident, deeply human interpretation during which, if you listen closely, you can sometimes hear him breathing as he plays. His trip to Leipzig was part of a sprawling project related to the album: Over the next two years, he will visit 36 cities — winking at the fact that each of the six suites has six sections — on six continents. (His next stop is Washington, on Nov. 29.)
In each city, he will pair a performance of the full cycle — nearly 2 1/2 hours of labyrinthine music, played with barely a pause — with what he’s calling a “day of action” that brings Bach into the community, as in his trip to Neustadt. It’s a small and glancing, but also deeply felt, attempt to suggest that this music, with its objectivity and empathy, its breathless energy and delicate grace, could, if heard closely by enough people, change the world.
And the world, Ma readily acknowledges, could use some changing. The day of his recital in Leipzig, he said, “I’m thinking of what happened in Chemnitz,” only 50 miles southeast, where anti-immigrant riots had raged a few days earlier. A week later, asked by the Financial Times about President Donald Trump, Ma said: “Would I play for him on his deathbed? No.”
Composed around 1720, just before Bach moved to Leipzig, the cello suites, now musical and emotional touchstones, were little known until the early 1900s. It was thought, even by some who knew of them, that they were merely études, nothing you’d want to perform in public.
They may have remained a curiosity had it not been for the great cellist Pablo Casals, who happened on a used edition of the score in a Barcelona shop when he was 13. Decades later, in the 1930s, he made a classic recording of the set, the success of which put the suites on the path to ubiquity.
“It’s both incredibly highfalutin and sublime, but also unbelievably elemental,” Ma said of the cycle. The suites inhabit different keys and different moods: The third, for example, tends sunny; the fifth broods. Broadly speaking, the final three are thornier and more troubled than the three before.
They all follow an almost identical progression of movements loosely based on dance forms, including grave Sarabandes and sprightly Gigues. Indeed, a pervasive danciness, a rhythmic shapeliness even in slower moments, is a mark of a good performance.
Their magic lies in a perfect balance of exploration and security. They move through harmonic progressions with scientific curiosity and patience, but also with an intensity of feeling that keeps excruciating and releasing, over and over. Simultaneously expansive and reassuring, they are, for many, the very definition of consolation.
“It has helped me through challenging times, with a death in the family,” Mary Pat Buerkle, Ma’s longtime manager, said of his Bach. “It completely calmed me of ridiculous jitters the morning of my wedding. I was more than a little jittery, and I asked my husband to please put it on for me.”
When he recorded the suites for the first time, in 1983, Ma was still in his 20s, although already decades into a career that began as a child prodigy in the early 1960s, when his family moved from Paris to New York. It’s an assertive, dramatic, robust reading of the music, with heightened extremes.
That first go, he said with a laugh, “is like youthful ‘I know everything.’ The second is middle-aged confusion.”
That second recording, “Inspired by Bach,” was released in the late 1990s, accompanied by ingenious films that depicted the ever-inquisitive Ma in collaboration with artists from other disciplines: a landscape architect, choreographer Mark Morris, the etchings of Piranesi, ice dancers. He’s right that there’s an element of bewilderment — or, at least, the modesty of maturity — in this more ruminative, less rhythmically moored take.
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The fifth suite, in the 1983 album, has the haunted beauty of an empty Venetian palazzo, with prevailing gloom shot with sudden shafts of blinding sunlight. In 1998, the same suite feels milder and more summery, the overarching condition one of restorative shade rather than stark shadow.
Between the two recordings, Ma gradually moved from instrumentalist to icon. (When Kramer gets hit in the head on a 1992 episode of “Seinfeld,” he starts randomly blurting out “Yo-Yo Ma.”)
“It happened over time,” Buerkle said. “It wasn’t like there was a magic moment. Over a long period of time, incrementally, you become the go-to person. It’s such a strange thing in this business. You become, at some point, the household name.”
Ma took that status seriously and has used it to richer effect than the rest of the tiny handful of classical musicians at his level of renown. In 1998, he started the Silk Road Project, dedicated to genially exploring cross-cultural artistic connections, out of which emerged the constantly touring Silk Road Ensemble. Now a grandfather, he has aged easily into the role of global-citizen humanist, lecturing on the role of artists and culture in a fraying society. (The question is whether his “days of action” will have the substance, beyond photo ops, to match his good intentions.)
Above all, he simply has more curiosity than any other major star: Ma could easily make his living playing Elgar’s crowd-pleasing concerto and only that; instead, he spent a chunk of his time last year introducing a wild new concerto by Esa-Pekka Salonen. And no one who wanted an easy time of it would commit to three dozen exposed, exhausting performances of the complete Bach suites.
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One of the greatest tests yet of his vaunted abilities to communicate with audiences has come with his desire to perform the suites, as intimate as music gets, in spaces many times larger than Bach could have imagined. Ma did them in 2015 at the BBC Proms at the Royal Albert Hall in London, more often the site of grand symphonic performances.
Last September, he took on what seemed to be a folly: playing the suites outdoors, in front of more than 17,000 people in Los Angeles.
“In my heart of hearts, I had envisioned him doing this at the Hollywood Bowl,” Buerkle said. “And being able to sit there and witness that was a magical moment, because people said it couldn’t be done.”
Critic Alex Ross, in The New Yorker, called it “the loveliest experience of my listening year.”
I knew what he meant after hearing Ma do the whole thing here at St. Nicholas Church, where Bach made music three centuries ago. During the performance, I noticed a new physical calm in him: The effusive body movements for which he’s known and, by some, lightly mocked — the face scrunched in a grimace, neck craned away from the instrument in exaggerated concentration — were gone.
He played with honesty, straightforwardness and lack of exaggeration; the music was milked for neither laughter nor tears, with a tone like wire coated in silk. The first suites were taken lightly, as if sunnily refined sketches; it was in the final three that Ma entered another sphere.
The Prelude of the Fourth Suite soldiered past a sudden feeling of rupture and loss, becoming a study in perseverance and courage. The Courante let out sudden floods of color; the Bourrée was rough and spunky, the Gigue raucous. The Fifth Suite’s Sarabande was a long, sinuous exhalation of melancholy. After two hours of music and the forlornness of the Fifth Suite, the Sixth was resplendent, a golden ending. It moved past loveliness into something greater.
“For Mr. Ma,” Bernard Holland wrote in The New York Times of a performance of the suites at Carnegie Hall in 1991, “Bach’s world is unfailingly beautiful sound and graceful melody. Anyone who has sung or played Bach’s music knows, to the contrary, its tendencies toward density and difficulty. Mr. Ma denies that these exist.”
Nearly three decades later, that’s no longer true.