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Yo-Yo Ma at Red Rocks review: One man and one cello make for historic night

Yo-Yo Ma
Denver Post

By Ray Mark Rinaldi

Even at Red Rocks, a show business landmark where spectacle is an everyday occurrence, an appearance by classical musician Yo-Yo Ma was an extraordinary event.

Picture it — if you weren’t one of the 9,000 people who witnessed the concert live Wednesday evening — one man, one cello, two hours and 15 minutes of Bach. No light show, none of those electric guitar riffs or drum solos that the rock ‘n’ roll sanctuary is known for, a hushed crowd. Historic.

Ma played all six of Bach’s unaccompanied cello suites with barely time to breath in between. It was a music marathon, certainly for the audience, who even at classical events is never asked to sit still for so long without an intermission. And certainly for the 62-year-old cellist, craftily coordinating fingers and bow over four thin strings, churning out hundreds of thousands of notes, all from memory.

It sounds superhuman, but it was just the opposite. It was fully human, perfect and imperfect at the same time, easy and difficult, marked by attempt and reward. This is Ma’s skill. He doesn’t make his music something to marvel at. He makes it a gift. Created for you himself. Of course, Red Rocks Amphitheater gets some of the credit for the concert’s unique charm. Wednesday offered up one of those perfect Front Range nights: a dark, dry sky, just enough swirling wind to add drama to the performance. And those rocks, naked in the reflected stage light, connecting geology and geography and time, making 300-year-old compositions, written a world away, feel relevant to this particular Colorado moment.

No doubt that Bach, too, enabled it. His suites are beloved — and for many good reasons. One by one, they offer up abstract showcases for emotions high and low. The first pulls you in with a warm melody; the third thrills you with a succession of rapid-fire notes; the fourth is so romantic.

“I think of Bach as a scientist-composer, in that he tries to describe all of nature and all of human nature,” Ma said in an interview backstage before the show.

“And he doesn’t put himself at the center, which is amazing. You know, like a scientist doesn’t say, ‘I know everything,’ but more like, ‘this is what I observe, this is what we found, and this is where we are.’ ”

Read the full review.