Pippa Hudson experiences Yo-Yo magic at Kirstenbosch
I have always loved the story behind Bach’s 6 suites for unaccompanied cello.
They are of course masterful compositions – when I meet Yo-Yo Ma he describes them as “for cellists, the pinnacle of music that has been written for their instrument.”
But while their technical difficulty and emotional range are famously acknowledged, it’s the story of how we almost didn’t get to hear them that I find so bewitching.
Bach wrote the suites sometime in the early 1700s – we can’t be sure because none of the original manuscripts have survived. But we have his second wife Anna Magdalena to thank for transcribing copies (in between bearing him 13 children, only six of whom survived early childhood. Perhaps it is their loss we hear in the aching notes of the 5th suite. But more on that later.)
The thing is, the cello didn’t get much love as a solo instrument in the 1700s, nor in the century that followed either. The suites would only be published in 1825 – but even then, few cellists showed much interest and those that did tended to view them more as exercises than as performance pieces.
That is how some of the most famous music in history came to be a clutch of tattered, dusty papers, languishing on the back shelf of a second-hand music store in Barcelona. It is there that a young cellist, only 13 years old, discovered the pages, took them home and played them – and fell in love. That cellist was the great Pablo Casals, and more than 40 years later he would finally record them and secure their enduring fame. About 30 years after that, he would wield his baton over a festival orchestra that included another child prodigy named Yo-Yo Ma…
And so instead of the suites crumbling into dust on a Barcelona bookshelf, they live to challenge the technique of every aspiring cellist and to inspire the global experiment that brought Yo-Yo Ma to Cape Town last week.
The Mother City was the 26th stop on a tour around the world that will take in 36 locations – one for each movement of the 6 cello suites that he plays back to back in every city. The aim, he says, is to demonstrate that culture, and our unique ways of expressing and celebrating our culture, can be points of connection and healing, rather than points of difference and discord. That in sharing the things that show who we are to the world, we can come to see that the other – THEM – is in fact really just another kind of US.
The finest cellist of our generation strolls quietly onto the stage at Kirstenbosch, simply dressed in black, takes up a lonely chair in the middle of the stage, and without further ado, begins to play. He acknowledges applause after the first suite is completed, yet still does not speak. It is only after the second is dispensed with that he finally reaches for a microphone and proceeds to charm the audience with his obvious pleasure at playing this beautiful music in this beautiful place.
As a full moon begins to rise, he dedicates suite number 3 to the people of Cape Town, thanking all those who work towards creating a better world.
By now the audience is eating out of his hands, hanging on every phrase, almost breathless as the cello wails and sings and soars and grunts beneath the onslaught of his flying fingers. The bow hairs begin to give way, yet he hardly breaks a sweat, completely immersed in the music.
And the best is yet to come.
He stops after suite 4 to explain why the next piece is particularly special. Number 5, he says, is for those in need of comfort. It is the piece he himself goes to when he is feeling out of sorts, in need of centering and solace. He will play it for all those in the audience who have suffered loss. Although it’s dark now, you can tell that tears are welling in many eyes as the cello sings out of longing and heartache and loneliness and pain. It is agonisingly beautiful.
The pause after the final note is the longest I have ever heard as if no-one can quite believe it is over or wants to break the spell. When he finally lifts the bow the crowd explodes, and the quietest concert I’ve ever attended becomes the loudest.
He ends the show as humbly as it began, inviting one of our musicians to perform one of our songs with him as the accompanist.
The crowd roars again as Zolani Mahola comes onstage, and many break into fresh tears as she plays the opening notes of Asimbonanga. It’s the perfect choice, a song of longing and missing that speaks to absence and presence at the same time. Yo-Yo Ma is beaming as his hoped-for connection takes place. One imagines Johann Sebastian Bach and Johnny Clegg are beaming too, wherever they may be.