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VPR's coverage of arts and culture in the region.

Mares: Seeing Yo Yo Ma

Commentator Bill Mares was in the audience for Yo Yo Ma's recent concert at the National Cathedral in Washington, D.C.

Just this week, superstar cellist Yo Yo Ma made headlines again when he surprised a small group of onlookers with an outdoor, informal performance in Mumbai, India. One lucky observer said it left him ‘spellbound.’ I know how he must have felt! Last fall my wife gave me a birthday present to hear Ma play Bach's Six Unaccompanied Cello Suites in the National Cathedral in Washington. This was one of 36 concerts Ma is doing on five continents to celebrate his third recording of the Suites. And for three hours without intermission, Ma enthralled the sold-out audience with what I might call a symphonic sermon that echoed throughout that Gothic church.

There’s something magical about the cello that goes far beyond the sound of one bow on one string. Indeed, in Ma’s performance, multiple strokes simply seemed to hang together through Bach's contrapuntal invention as the music deepened and soared with emotion and intellect.

There was no intermission, but Ma paused after the third suite to stand and invite the audience to stretch with him as he raised his cello high above his head.

When asked why he’s chosen to take on the task of recording the Suites for yet a third time, he says it’s to measure his own growth over the 55 years that he’s been playing them.

And he says it’s to share them once more with a world that he sees as being full of both boundless possibility and daunting challenges, even to our very survival - and that during times of stress, confusion, and insecurity, it’s important to offer comfort, purpose, and meaning.

Ma believes that the music of Bach does that and more. He says it “reconnects us to our common humanity.” And he continues that "fear makes us smaller, culture makes us larger."

Upon returning home my wife and I encountered more food for thought – of the small world variety – when we went to pick our dog up from a generous neighbor’s care. There we learned that 40 years ago that same neighbor had worked as a professional sound-mixer on Ma’s very first recording of those same Bach cello suites.

Writer Bill Mares of Burlington is also a former teacher and state legislator. His most recent book is a collection of his VPR commentaries, titled "3:14 And Out."
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