Review: Yo-Yo Ma at the BBC Proms

Yo-Yo Ma, culture, performance, BBC Proms, Alex Veeneman, Kettle Mag
Written by Alex Veeneman

He wanted an intimate experience – an experience of just him, his cello and the listener. Yo-Yo Ma got that and then some as he sat down and played the six unaccompanied cello suites by Johann Sebastian Bach to a sold out crowd at the Royal Albert Hall, on the penultimate Saturday night of the BBC Proms season.

From the get go, this would be no ordinary performance – for what the French born, US based cellist Ma would accomplish would play all six of the suites Bach wrote for cello by memory. No stand, no score, just Ma performing on his cello 36 movements (6 for each suite) that are considered to be some of Bach’s finest work…without an interval.

No easy task

It is unprecedented. It is for any musician, a daunting task, as the chords, signatures and ranges change with each suite, to master each ones without fail. They also include a sarabande, a slow, sensual dance that has its origins in North Africa, but had become popular in France, heard in these suites as a courtly dance, according to an interview Ma gave to BBC Radio 3’s Tom Service.

Ma is no stranger to these performances – he has recorded them twice, first in 1983 and then in 1998, and has performed them on many an occasion, most recently before the Proms the First, Fifth and Sixth Cello Suites at the Salzburg Festival in Austria.

“Bach was actually trying to do something that was impossible to do,” Ma said. “He is writing music for a bowed instrument which usually plays one line at a time, and he is trying to write music with many lines, polyphonically.”

Ma says that Bach completes this through the help of virtuosic writing, but completed it through the vision of the listener’s ear, the power of suggestion.

“I might say something, and in the middle of this, you’re going to complete the thought, while I come in with new thoughts,” Ma said. “This is something that he does magnificently, which I think is kind of unprecedented. Up until today, I think very few people have had this ability to do this in the same way that Bach has in the past.”

Bach would have been proud, for as the time the final note was played, as they did on multiple occasions during the course of that performance, the crowd that gathered at the Hall that Saturday night gave him an ecstatic standing ovation. The listener was there every step of the way, and the intimate experience that he wanted was secured, so in return, as he too did on multiple occasions, Ma applauded them.

Ma also did something else that night through that performance – he gave himself an early present before his 60th birthday in October through the knowledge that he can, and did, play these suites back to back, without fault.

An unprecedented work of art

Ma proved the unprecedented was possible, mastering the tone of these suites, from the humble beginnings in the First, to the emotionally charged Fifth suite, to the sound of peace and tranquillity in the Sixth suite.

One could feel the thrill, the anticipation, the excitement and the intrigue of what Ma had done over the nearly three hour performance, whether at the Hall watching him live or listening to the performance on Radio 3.

It was flawless, it was perfection – it was bliss. More so, it was a part of Proms history.



What Yo-Yo Ma proved to himself was he could do the impossible, and what listeners everywhere proved was something they knew all along – he is one of the world’s great performers – a performer whose focus is on the intimacy of the experience of music, a performer who one never gets tired of seeing, a performer worthy of the title legend.

Ma’s performance is one of the best Proms performances this season, with the broadcast closing on this quote from Radio 3 presenter John Shea, after the transition to studios at Broadcasting House.

“Usually the biggest occasions at the Proms involve the largest numbers of performers on stage,” Shea said. “Isn’t it strange how sometimes the opposite can be the case?”

That, I suspect, Mr Shea, is what, year after year, helps to keep the Proms effervescent, and with Ma’s performance, this year is no exception.

Yo-Yo Ma’s performance of Bach’s Six Cello Suites can be seen on BBC Four at 7.30 on Thursday, 10 September. It can also be heard for 30 days on the iPlayer via the Radio 3 web site.

What do you think of this performance? Have your say in the comments section below.