Even though the evening of Thursday, June 20 felt more like autumn than summer, the cool weather did not deter thousands from attending cellist Yo-Yo Ma’s performance of Bach’s six cello suites at the Jay Pritzker Pavilion in Millennium Park.
The free concert, presented by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra Association in partnership with the Chicago Department of Cultural Affairs and Special Events, was one of Ma’s performances of his Bach Project, in which the cellist seeks to explore how “culture connects us” by performing these famous works, and holding a Day of Conversation and Action, in 36 locations around the world, including Vienna, Sydney, Athens, and Mumbai.
The massive audience in Millennium Park was hushed for nearly two-and-a-half hours as Ma, the CSO’s Judson and Joyce Green Creative Consultant, performed Bach’s most famous works for cello passionately and athletically. Even with a backdrop the wailing of ambulances during the Allemande movement of the Suite No. 2, Ma was unfazed — he just smiled and continued to play.
As Ma explained to the audience, Bach’s cellos suites have served as “a sanctuary for [him in] good times and less good times.” He added that, in his nearly six decades playing the suites, he’s learned that this music “is not about getting it ‘right’ — it’s about getting in the right state of mind.”
Ma captured a Chicago state of mind by dedicating Suite No. 3 to the Windy City since the piece is “the most celebratory” of the suites. He also dedicated Suite No. 5 to “all of the people and families who have lost loved ones,” and shared that performing and listening to this music is “one way that healing can take place.” At the conclusion of the suites, Ma stated, “One of the things I love about this town is the way you try and take care of [your] young people.”
As a surprise, genre-bending encore, Ma performed “Eye of the Tiger” with young musicians from the music education organization Little Kids Rock and one of the rock anthem’s co-writers, Jim Peterik of the band Survivor, who hails from the Chicago area. To cap off the encore, Ma improvised his solos by playing his cello behind his head, mimicking Peterik’s flashy guitar moves.
At the end of the night, Ma thanked the audience for “sharing this moment,” and to the young musicians for “[taking] us further, getting our empathy, imagination, and curiosity going.”