The Bach Project
By CALVIN CHEONG ‘20
It’s 9:00 am on the thirteenth of April of 2019. A middle-aged Chinese-American cellist sits in the shadow of a bridge that spans the Rio Grande and connects Laredo, Texas, and Nuevo Laredo, Mexico. Hundreds gather to hear his song and his message, while Yo-Yo Ma waves to them (as well as to a few spectators on the opposing riverbank) while hefting an ancient instrument in his other hand. The morning sun bathes the scene in soothing light as, suddenly, music pours from the cello. With the easy, relaxed air of a virtuoso and a “Laredo” cap sitting lopsided on his head, Ma coaxes from the strings what we all know as the opening notes of Bach’s Cello Suite No. 1 in G Major, Prélude.
“36 CONCERTS. 6 CONTINENTS. 36 DAYS OF ACTION.” The words blare out from the website’s homepage, followed by a smaller, but somehow more important, phrase: “Exploring how culture connects us.” And subtly installed in the top left corner in a smooth, modernized font: the Bach Project.
Yo-Yo Ma’s performance in Los Dos Laredos was his ninth (and most recent) of thirty-six planned events located across the globe over the span of two years. According to its website, The Bach Project, inspired by Ma’s love for the cello, “explores and celebrates all the ways that culture makes us stronger as individuals, as communities, as a society, and as a planet.” Although Ma wishes to focus on “Bach’s ability to speak to our shared humanity at a time when our civic conversation is so often focused on division,” he sees the music as just one example of how culture can “help us to imagine and build a better future.”
Ma’s ambition to perform every one of Bach’s cello suites in thirty-six individual concerts is only made more incredible by his decision to couple each concert with a “Day of Action” that follows. Partnering with local artists and community leaders on these Days of Action, Ma creates public events that focus on his profound motto: “Culture, Conversation, and Collaboration.” As such, the Day of Action at each location is as unique as the people and culture who live there; indeed, the Bach Project focuses on a different question or subject at each locale, ranging from “bringing diverse communities together” to “culture and social cohesion in a plural society.”
But you might be wondering: why did Yo-Yo Ma choose Bach’s music specifically to convey such a broad and ambitious message? I definitely asked this question myself when I first came across the Bach Project. After quite a bit of thought, I came to a decision: classical music, or instrumental music in general, is more effective in the specific task of connecting cultures than other genres. Here’s why: without lyrics, the songs can be enjoyed by listeners of all cultures without the obstruction of a language barrier. Without lyrics, the meaning or message of each piece is more interpretable and thus provokes conversation among people with different opinions. Additionally, the classical style is steeped in rich history in a way that musically imparts culture in a genuine and candid form. In my opinion, Yo-Yo Ma couldn’t have picked a better way to spread his message; his six-decade old passion for music served as a meeting point for the numerous cultures and environments of the world.
Perhaps this article will make you see (or hear) classical music in a new way. Perhaps not. Either way, if you ever find yourself suddenly craving classical music, Bach’s cello suites are a perfect way to start, and Yo-Yo Ma performs them exquisitely. The Bach Project has several predicted locations in the United States, so keep an eye out for any news.