Yo-Yo Ma Explains Globe-Spanning Bach Project & Creating 'Citizen Musicians'

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Yo-Yo Ma

On Sept. 2, cellist Yo-Yo Ma played all six of Bach’s cello suites at the Nikolaikirche in Leipzig, Germany. It wasn't out of the ordinary for the world’s most famous classical musician, who was playing at the church where the composer premiered many of his works. But the setting had a deeper meaning: In 1989, it’s where peaceful rebellions against communist rule -- which led to the fall of the Berlin Wall -- began.

“This is the very [place] where these [political] changes happen,” says Ma, 62, over the phone from Leipzig. Today, he notes, Syrian refugees are coming to the city and facing demonstrations of a different sort -- from right-wing nationalists. “It’s the right moment to explore the idea of home. What is home? It’s where you go to be sustained in difficult times. For me, Bach is home.”

Over the next two years, Ma will visit 36 sites worldwide as part of his Bach Project, playing the cello suites in places like the Nikolaikirche -- settings with sociopolitical meaning. It coincides with the recent release of his third and final recording of the suites, Six Evolutions. “We live in more and more of a fractured society,” the 18-time Grammy winner says. “As a cellist, I was thinking, ‘What can I do to help?’ I’ve been toying with the idea of ‘citizen musicians’ for a while.” 

To Ma, that meant finding ways to perform and enact positive change on a local level. He realized that concerts were one of the best ways to convene diverse groups of people and embarked upon a project that would pair his performances with “culture in action” events directly tied to the nearby regions. So far, that has meant engaging with the Mexican-American community around Denver after playing Red Rocks in August and meeting community organizers spurring industrial revitalization outside Cleveland.

“One of the things culture does best is to make the ‘other’ into ‘us,’” he says. He’ll test that idea on six continents, minus the obvious Antarctica. “That would be the one I’m missing out on,” he says. “Unless there’s a particular request from the penguin population.”

A version of this article originally appeared in the Sept. 15 issue of Billboard.