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PERFORMING ARTS | Review

Yo-Yo Ma's Clicked-On Bach

March 01, 1998|Mark Swed | 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.

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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.

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