Yo Yo Ma does the impossible?

Yo Yo Ma does the impossible?


norman lebrecht

September 14, 2017

From Mark Swed’s LA Times review, titled ‘Yo Yo Ma does the impossible at the Hollywood Bowl’:


The Hollywood Bowl shell was lighted midnight blue. The amphitheater was probably kept as dark as the fire marshal would allow. Few of the more than 17,000 seats were empty.

Then for two hours and 40 minutes Tuesday night, Yo-Yo Ma played all six of Bach’s solo cello suites straight though, with just a 10-minute pause in the middle.

The master cellist had never played these suites for a crowd so large, he later confirmed …We need Guinness World Records to determine whether, as I suspect, that this was a record, a larger crowd than any before to hear a performance of all six suites. But whether it was or not, the concert proved an unquestionably great, memorable Bowl occasion….

Not sure which bit the headline writer found impossible: the length of the recital with just a ten-minute break, or the size of the crowd for solo Bach.

Read on here.


Photo (c) Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times


  • J. says:

    Is Ma planning to record the suites again?

  • Steven Honigberg says:

    Incredible feat. Incredible mind.

  • Ungeheuer says:

    I see that Ma is trying to emulate the Three Tenors business model. It is a fool’s errand. The Bach cello suites were not meant for an outdoor audience of thousands in sunny southern Cal. I hope he is not planning to record these suites again since his first one for CBS/Sony is good enough. One of the best post-Casals. There is a new outstanding recording of these works by French cellist Jean-Guihen Queyras that no one who loves these pieces should miss.

    • Pianoronald says:

      The recording of Bach’s cello suites by JG Queyras is my favourite one.

    • Mikey says:

      There is also an amazing and thoroughly convincing recording by Helen Callus, on the viola (along with some musicological support for the idea that they, or some of them at least, MAY have originally been written for viola).

      • Ungeheuer says:

        Thank you for the recommendation. Will be investigating her recording soon.

      • Ungeheuer says:

        On the 3rd suite at the moment and so far so good. Had never heard the name Helen Callus until today so most thankful for the introduction. Her playing is splendid too. I will ignore the couple of sideswipes on Amazon on her recording since they don’t match at all what I am hearing.

    • timbits says:

      You can criticize this from an artistic perspective but I see nothing wrong with the business model here. It’s hardly a fool’s errand from a bottom line perspective.

      • Cecilia Tsan says:

        I attended this concert and can testify that my friend Yo-Yo was not trying to emulate the Three Tenors or anybody. He was just himself, an immense artist, whose musicianship honored Bach as very few do. I am also a friend of Jean-Guihen Queyras and also love his approach of Bach’s music. I do not believe that one interpretation excludes the other one. They both are immense musicians. I also know that they deeply admire each other. Yes, one could be skeptical about the size of the Hollywood Bowl and the nature of the music played. I can tell you that none of the 13000 persons who attended felt that something was wrong or inappropriate. The journey in which we embarked thanks to Yo-Yo was definitely a life altering experience which will remain in my heart and mind forever. Thank you, dear Yo-Yo and also the extraordinary sound engineer.

        • Ungeheuer says:

          Having heard Ma play the 6 suites in one night years ago at the Church of St Ignatius of Loyola in Manhattan beats the H’wood Bowl by a long margin. The former venue was more in scale and context (and possibly reverence) to the music than the other in La La Land could ever be. Regards.

          • M2N2K says:

            Your opinion about a concert you did not attend is irrelevant. And by the way, after 8 o’clock on a mid-September evening, even Southern California is NOT “sunny” at all.

    • Bill says:

      Emulate the Three Tenors Business Model.

      Please explain what that exactly means?

      That a classical musician in this day and age can fill a venue that seats 17-18,000 and they sit in raptuourous silence for the whole show listening to some of the most sublime music known to humans?

      Really, what do you mean by your comment?

      • Cecilia Tsan says:

        UNGEHEUER: when you say “The former venue was more in scale and context (and possibly reverence) to the music than the other in La La Land could ever be.”, do you imply that it was “irreverent” to play at the Hollywood Bowl? I am sure you attended a fantastic concert in the “former venue” but why criticizing the fact that Yo-Yo played at the Bowl when you did not even attend the concert? I was also skeptical about the dichotomy between the size of the Bowl and the nature of the Six Bach Suites. Yo-Yo’s genius was way above that and he offered us an evening of extraordinary beauty, artistry and spirituality that one can only experience on premises. Why creating antagonism, negativity or hierarchy when it is so irrelevant?
        Mark Swed sums it up pretty well:”…it was just Ma on Tuesday night on the Bowl’s giant video screens, his cello amplified to sound as though it were 20 feet high.
        Extraordinarily, this had the effect of a kind of visual and aural intimacy you could never reproduce in a concert hall while at the same time producing a sense of awe being in a large outdoor arena where attention-deficit is normally taken for granted. With the Bowl doing everything right — the lighting, the mood, the outstanding sound system — Ma made the astonishing an argument against dumbing down.”
        I will never forget this concert. And I have heard Yo-Yo since our early childhood in Paris.
        Hats off to Fred Vogler, sound engineer who respected and presented Yo-Yo’s tone as a precious treasure. The extraordinary thing is that it all seems “natural”. Let’s embrace beauty and charisma rather than criticizing. The world needs this type of cathartic experience more than ever. 13000 people moved and having their souls soaring, as they did that night, is in itself a remarkable tour de force.

  • Marc says:

    The Queyras recording from 2007? it is indeed splendid.

    • pianoronald says:

      Yes, that one. I also heard Queyras play the six suites at Wigmore Hall – unforgettable.

    • pianoronald says:

      Yes, that one. I also heard Queyras play the six suites at Wigmore Hall – unforgettable.

    • Ungeheuer says:

      2007? I thought it was new. It’s on Harmonia Mundi.

      • Steve P says:

        Can’t wait to check this out. Love the cello suites!
        And congrats to Yo-Yo for this exposure.

        • Cecilia Tsan says:

          FYI, Jean-Guihen has also been a friend of mine for years. And yes, his Bach Suites are out of this world. Both he and Yo-Yo are fabulous musicians who have the utmost respect for each other. There is no point in talking about them as if one would exclude the other one. We must avoid this type of sterile discussion (imaginary battles between musicians playing he same instruments 😉 ! )which have nothing to do with what music really is.

  • pianoronald says:

    Let’s not forget David Watkins’ beautiful recording!

  • Ben says:

    Bravo Ma! Classical music doesn’t need to be dumbed down for today’s audience. Ma appears to believe in that, and thus, classical music still has a future.

  • Malcolm Kottler says:

    This was Ma’s largest audience for the Bach Suites. But 2 years ago (in 2015) at the BBC Proms, he played the exact same concert, performing all 6 suites with a minimal break.

    You can listen to that performance on YouTube here:


  • Petros Linardos says:

    While I can only have huge respect for Yo Yo Ma as a musician, and for this feat, I believe a longer intermission could have only helped how many members in the audience listen more attentively.

    • M2N2K says:

      On the other hand, a musician of his quality and experience probably knows exactly how long a break he needs to present the entire cycle as one monumental creation without sacrificing its continuity. A longer intermission would possibly be disruptive not only for him as a performer but for many listeners as well.

      • Cecilia Tsan says:

        The short intermission did not prevent the audience from listening very attentively. It’s quite the opposite. I was there and I have rarely see the audience so respectful and focused in that venue where I played AND attended concerts, including the one we are talking about.

  • Gary says:

    So people complain that no one goes to classical concerts, and then when 17,000 people show up for a classical concert they complain about that. WTF?

    • M2N2K says:

      Give credit to the complainers: at least they express themselves frankly and don’t try to hide what kind of people they are.