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[Herald Review] Yo-Yo Ma ‘saves’ Korea with Bach’s cello suites

Cellist says Bach’s music is similar to K-pop

On Sunday, Chinese American cellist Yo-Yo Ma delivered his message of “I want Bach to save the world” to the Seoul audience.

Ma, 64, performed J.S. Bach’s six cello suites for solo cello as part of the Credia Park Concert at Jamsil in eastern Seoul, playing all 36 movements without an intermission in a 150-minute concert.

The Bach Project began in August 2018 and has spread across 36 cities on six continents over a period of two years. “I want Bach to save the world,” Ma said in the belief that Bach’s music can heal and bring people together.
Cellist Yo-Yo Ma (Credia)
Cellist Yo-Yo Ma (Credia)

Sunday’s performance, originally scheduled to take place outdoors at Olympic Park, was relocated to the Olympic Gymnastics Arena due to Typhoon Lingling, which hit the capital over the weekend.

As the arena was not designed to host classical music performances, the venue was disorganized. Noise came from everywhere, and seats were uncomfortable.

But Ma did not seem to mind the circumstances. He concentrated on his cello in a 150-minute marathon, without a single pause.

At the recital, Ma addressed the audience in Korean, glancing at his prepared notes. He first greeted the audience, saying, “It’s a beautiful night.”

The cellist is known for his sustained yet emotion-loaded presentation. A passionate Bach enthusiast, he does not need scores to perform the solo cello suites.

Sunday’s presentation demonstrated how Ma earned his virtuoso status. Though a solo cello performance for 150 minutes could be overwhelming even for the most gifted musicians, Ma never showed any signs of discomfort. He continued with the presentation at his own pace.

The artist chose “The Song of the Birds” for the encore, a Catalan folk song famed for being one of the favorites of legendary Spanish cellist Pablo Casals. Casals is credited with discovering the manuscripts of Bach’s solo cello suites at a bookstore in Barcelona, and bringing the forgotten pieces to the fore.

“Birds are a symbol of freedom, freedom to fly. So they can cross borders. We have the freedom to think, feel, love, act and remember,” Ma said in Korean before the encore.

When visiting cities for The Bach Project, the artist holds a “Day of Action” before or after the performance, actively engaging with sociocultural issues related to the city. In Seoul, the artist took the podium at Starfield Library in Coex, southern Seoul, on Saturday.

He went onstage with a reporter from local daily Donga Ilbo and an official from S.M. Entertainment to discuss the future of K-pop. Before the discussion, he played a song from tvN’s recently wrapped up fantasy-romance drama “Hotel Del Luna.”

At the discussion, Ma mentioned how Bach created a new form of the arts and that his solo cello suites are for dancing, similar to the K-pop of today, despite 300 years of difference.

On Monday, Ma took the stage at another concert at Dorasan Station in Paju, Gyeonggi Province, near the Demilitarized Zone. The DMZ concert, arranged by the Korea Tourism Organization, marked the one-year anniversary of the signing of the Pyongyang Declaration, an inter-Korean declaration signed Sept. 19, 2018 in Pyongyang.

By Im Eun-byel(