Yo-Yo Ma’s Clicked-On Bach

Mark Swed is The Times' music critic

The great Johann Sebastian Bach is often called the most universal of all the classical composers. And there is evidence to bear that out. Bach translates effortlessly into just about any culture or genre. Jazz composers have updated his music. Beatniks grooved to him; hippies switched on synthesizer Bach. The Swingle Singers made a career of Bach scat. And over the years we’ve all laughed at P.D.Q. Bach.

Filmmakers have been known to turn to Bach, too--not only when they want to capture the profound wonder of outer space or the deepest emotion, but even to vivify sex (one example being “Slaughterhouse Five”). We’ve had Bach on the koto, and Bach’s been to Africa, persuasively played with drumbeat and chant. Who knows, hip-hop Bach could be next, and why not?

But the latest test for the composer comes from Yo-Yo Ma, who thought that a garden designer, an 18th century visionary architect, a Postmodern choreographer, an independent filmmaker, a Kabuki actor and an ice-dance team might help him get deeper into the essence of Bach’s six suites for solo cello.

Rather than merely record Bach’s suites--those collections of popular Baroque dances that Bach turned into an incomparable mirror of the soul--Ma has made an epic project of what most cellists consider the greatest music ever written for their instrument. Called “Inspired by Bach,” Ma’s undertaking includes six hourlong videos (one for each suite), a two-CD recording of the suites and a national tour. The CDs and the videos are now in the stores, and the tour is steaming our way, with Ma arriving to perform the suites over two nights, Thursday and Friday, at Bel-Air Presbyterian Church, under UCLA’s auspices.



The videos will screen at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art on Friday and next Sunday, with Ma scheduled to speak at the Friday screening; next month PBS will broadcast the videos as a series.

All of this represents a fundamental change in the kind of cellist Ma has become in the 15 years since he made his first recording of the Bach suites. Back then, he was an emerging artist, and the performances--clear and pure, yet passionate--helped propel the young cellist to stardom.

Today, Ma, who last week took home two Grammy awards, is a full-fledged superstar. And the very definition of a superstar in our media-drenched age is someone who joyfully participates in a wide range of media-friendly activities. Ma does that, but he is different than the typical superstar. His is not an outsize personality. His playing does not have the immediately recognizable character of, say, a Rostropovich. In fact, the very cleanness of the early Bach recordings, the superlative technique and the cellist’s evident absorption in the music, are what first caught the world’s attention. Music lovers fell for Ma precisely because he seemed less a big ego on stage than a conduit for the music.


Ma is still such a conduit, only now he has turned the tap wide open. And so the cellist, who gives the impression of wanting to be part of every gang that will have him, has become an irrepressible collaborator. For instance, he passed through Los Angeles recently as a member of a tango band performing Astor Piazzolla’s music. The year before, we heard him with country fiddler Mark O’Connor and bassist Edgar Meyer playing Appalachian music. Last summer, he was in Hong Kong as soloist in Tan Dun’s massive “Symphony 1997,” exploring everything from ancient Chinese music to Western avant-garde to world pop. Ma has become, as much as any cellist could, universal.

Consequently, we now have the universal cellist returning to the universal composer, and for it, he has made all the world his stage. Ma has tried to see how the Bach suites might inspire different sorts of artists, and how their being inspired by Bach might then affect his own playing of music with which he has been intimately involved since childhood. And to do this, he has brought in a different collaborator and filmmaker for each suite.

The series begins with Ma and garden designer Julie Moir Messervy attempting to convince Boston politicians to build a Bach-inspired garden. Like all city bureaucrats, the Bostonians are pleased enough to be courted by a celebrity, and everyone likes the idea of beautifying a city, but they are ultimately unwilling to unload millions of dollars on some fairly vague notions about how a river undulates like the shape of a cello, or how the Courante movement of Suite No. 1 is like a swirl of birds and bees.

Ma and Messervy don’t give up hope. They take the music garden idea to Toronto, where there is receptivity but no resolution by deadline time for the film. Director Kevin McMahon seems to feel that putting Ma in different pretty outdoor settings for each movement will serve as a commercial for the music garden idea.

For the second of the suites, Ma moves from Mother Nature to virtual reality. Working with Canadian filmmaker Francois Girard (“32 Short Films About Glenn Gould” and the forthcoming “Red Violin”), Ma attempts to collaborate with the visionary 18th century architect Piranesi, whose “magic spaces,” proposed in his work “Carceri d’Invenzione,” were never realized but can be imagined now with three-dimensional computer graphics. Still, computer graphics are not, at least without a “Titanic” budget, all they are cracked up to be, and Ma, who plays, via special effects, from within the virtual spaces, mostly looks to be lost in a computer fun house.

Mark Morris is the third collaborator, and it is he who finally asks the million dollar question: “Here’s a fabulous piece of music. Isn’t that enough?” Morris admits that his own inspiration for choreographing the Third Suite was a nightmare. He dreamed of a horrible accident, of a dancer falling down the stairs, leaving a trickle of blood. The documentary part of this video by Barbara Willis Sweete is a fascinating interaction between straight-man Ma, happily willing to throw himself at Morris’ feet, and the flamboyant but deeply serious choreographer. Ma dully talks of puzzles, of fights between scales and arpeggios. Morris responds with great theatrical visions. The dance, “Falling Down Stairs,” is rich and substantive, although Sweete’s work turns clumsy as she moves away from documentary style toward a more creative role, trying to make cinematic dance.

Next is Atom Egoyan’s “Sarabande,” to the Fourth Suite. Egoyan is currently enjoying success with his critically admired feature “The Sweet Hereafter.” In this fictional hearafter, which attempts to explore Ma’s relationship to his audience, the cellist comes to Canada to play the Bach suites in concert. His music-making deeply affects the lives of a young couple breaking up, a dying but ebullient Greek taxi driver, a saintly retired doctor and an idealistic cello-playing young doctor taking over the older man’s practice. Make of this soap opera what you will; some viewers may be moved by it.

A much more imaginative failure, though, is “Struggle for Hope.” Suite No. 5, Ma tells us, is for him the saddest, almost like entering the world beyond the cello. So Ma decided to move beyond the world of Bach by asking Tamasaburo Bando, the celebrated Kabuki actor who specializes in female roles, to choreograph it. Here Niv Fichman’s filmmaking documents the cultural clashes of the attempt.


Ma expresses little that seems of much use to Bando, but is ever eager to learn from an outsider and to have an outsider validate his devotion to this music. Bando finally realizes it’s best not to think too much and makes a beautiful dance that often parallels movement with music--the exquisite flip of fan, say--but, as if from an alien planet, has absolutely nothing to do with it.

The last film, “Six Gestures,” brings forth the partners Jayne Torvill and Christopher Dean. Ma says that Torvill & Dean have done for ice dancing what Bach did for the cello, exploding all preconceptions of what is possible. That may be, but not here. They glide magically through the dances, but seem oblivious to the music. Ideas are not their strong point. In the meantime, filmmaker Patricia Rozema, with a bit of timid inspiration from MTV, has Ma playing on rooftops of New York and in Times Square. Interspersed is an actor, portraying an affable, maudlin TV-style Bach.

Does any of this affect Ma’s interpretations of the suites? There is no way to really know. The recordings for the CDs, which are heard in the videos, were made in different studios around the world, in conjunction with the collaborations, and conditions surely helped Ma focus on the music, rather than merely trying to fit in studio time in the midst of a busy schedule of playing other music. But don’t expect to actually sense something of Morris’ dance, or Bando’s, in the playing.

As Bach performances by themselves, though, these CDs offer more depth and insight into the suites, more attempt at drama than Ma’s earlier recording. Ma may not display the sheer visceral quality of Rostropovich’s Bach on EMI or have the palette of colors to be found in Mischa Maisky’s set on Deutsche Grammophon, and some may actually prefer the more neutral quality of Ma’s first set as getting closer to the abstract Bach ideal--but the new set is in many ways more mature in its freer, if still rigorous approach.

Ma’s playing continues to be technically superb, and the sincerity and intensity of his interpretations are hard to resist. The CD is certainly far better and more serious than its promotion as soundtrack for this strange series of videos implies.

An affable preppy presence throughout, Ma hardly has anything remarkable to say in these six hours of videos. But Bach’s cello suites are personal music, and when he speak through his cello, Ma remains--in spite of all the often inept media shenanigans, not because of them--well inspired by Bach.


YO-YO MA, playing Bach’s Suites for Unaccompanied Cello, Bel Air Presbyterian Church, 16221 Mulholland Drive. Date: Friday and Saturday, 8 p.m. Prices: $16-$45. Phone: (310) 825-2101. “A Conversation with Yo-Yo Ma,” Friday, 2 p.m., free but tickets required (available starting at 1 p.m. at museum); video screenings, Friday, 2 p.m., 6 p.m., and 8:30 p.m., and March 8, 1:30 p.m., 3:30 p.m., 6 p.m., free, Los Angeles County Museum of Art, 5905 Wilshire Blvd. (213) 857-6000.