I’m kind of hung up on the cello right now. I ran into my next-door neighbor the other day at the elevator, and he asked, “Is someone playing the cello in your apartment?” Yes, Bernard, someone is. Sometimes it’s Lucia Swarts or another virtuoso on YouTube, and sometimes it’s my son, practicing.
I played the cello from grades 7 through 11. (A fun fact right up there with my brief, glittering career as a synchronized swimmer.) I was a proud member of the Omaha All-City Jr. High School and High School Orchestras. My main qualification was that I had a ride to the Saturday rehearsals. But there I was for five years, in the third row, behind Schulte brothers Gary and Greg, my friend Mary, and two older girls who were on the pom-pom squad and were so regal I didn’t dare speak to them.
I sawed away at Tchaikovsky’s Marche Slave, Handel’s Water Music, and various Hungarian dances, and had a fabulous time. You can love something a lot without being particularly good at it. This is something I have proved to myself many times over, and my life has been happier for it.
But you know who’s good at the cello? Yo-Yo Ma. In my current fixation on Bach’s six suites for unaccompanied cello, my boy directed me to the performance that is linked to above. It’s Yo-Yo Ma at the Royal Festival Hall in London in 2015. Alone on stage, a few months before his 60th birthday, he played all six Bach cello suites, one after the other, from memory.
It is almost three hours of music, with a break between suites 3 and 4. An unforgettable night for the audience; the announcer describes a “huge sense of communion.”
My heart broke about 25 times listening to it, and a few additional times when the BBC played an interview with the cellist reflecting on his lifelong study of these pieces, and on what they mean to people who listen to them, especially in tough times. (That bit is at the 1 hour and 5 minute mark on the video.)
Even if you don’t share my Bach/cello passion of the moment, give it a listen. It’s some of the most beautiful, intimate music ever written; as Yo-Yo Ma says, it makes the listener feel part of a greater whole.