LENOX — If cellist Yo-Yo Ma pauses while addressing a crowd, one senses that it’s because he’s carefully choosing his words, not because he’s waiting for applause. But at Tanglewood, applause follows him wherever he goes, whatever he does. While Boston Symphony Orchestra stars may come and go, Ma is a constant at Tanglewood, showing up practically every year for multiple concerts, and he draws a crowd like no other living classical artist. Who else could attract so many that cars crawl bumper-to-bumper all the way from downtown Lenox, delaying the concert by half an hour? (The SoCo Creamery tent saw a temporary boom in business.) Who else could get a full standing ovation just for showing up on stage, not even having played a note?
Sunday evening, listeners turned out in droves to see Ma solo on the Koussevitzky Music Shed stage, performing Bach’s complete cello suites without intermission — a two-hour-plus marathon broken up only by short comments. (“It’s not a stump speech,” he quipped at one point when the eager audience applauded his every phrase.)
The concert was part of Ma’s lofty two-year “Bach Project,” during which he intends to perform the suites in 36 locations on six continents. The project’s mission also includes a “day of action” tailored to each location, and at Saturday’s event in Pittsfield, groups representing almost 40 local organizations assembled tables under a tent on the town’s common, and participants were offered comp tickets to the concert.
Ma was in the thick of it. Wearing an apron emblazoned with “The Berkshires Make” and a bright green trucker cap from farm-based youth organization Roots Rising, he visited tables in progress, performed at a brief tree-planting ceremony, and then listened attentively to community leaders and activists in a panel discussion hosted by Berkshire Eagle reporter Jenn Smith.
“Invite people to your tables, whether that’s the one that you make today, the one in your kitchen, the one in your community,” Smith exhorted the crowd.
This whole Bach Project is Ma’s “table,” and his table is as wide as the Tanglewood lawn and then some. He knows how many people want to sit with him, and Saturday’s action utilized his celebrity to uplift local voices that might otherwise be ignored. Ideally, the music is not just the music, but a means to an end: a kinder world.
“I want to thank you all for making time,” Ma said from the stage. “For taking the time out for us to be together tonight.”
In a world of unceasing, shallow demands on our attention, two uninterrupted hours is a significant time commitment, and Ma created a dedicated space for presence of mind. With no intermission during the suites, no opportunities arose to rejoin the outside world, examine notifications pinging in our pockets, or exclaim over whatever a certain someone had tweeted.
For those two hours, Ma took us on a remarkable journey. Similar to Shakespeare’s plays, the Bach suites can illuminate the full galaxy of human emotion and expression should the performer choose. Under his hands, the venerated pieces were living animals. The Prelude from Suite No. 1, chestnut of chestnuts, sounded fresh and inquisitive. The growling Gigues dispensed with all politeness. He rarely paused between movements, and so each suite was an unbroken arc, not a string of pearls. It seemed it didn’t matter at any given moment whether the average listener was hearing a Courante or an Allemande; the only thing that mattered was that we were all there.
Before Suite No. 5, Ma picked up a microphone and dedicated the piece to anyone who had experienced loss: of a loved one, health — or he said pointedly, “loss of dignity.” The Sarabande cried out, a wordless “De Profundis,” and where other Gigues danced with abandon, this one conveyed someone struggling to lift their feet. When it was over, he held his bow across the strings, and everyone understood that it was not the time to clap.
Past Bach Project encores have put local musicians or groups side by side on stage with Ma. To say this concert adhered to that form is accurate, but also seems an understatement. As James Taylor (a co-sponsor of this concert and Mr. Tanglewood himself) strolled out with a guitar to join Ma for a “Sweet Baby James” nightcap, the only thing missing was the fireworks.
At Tanglewood, Aug. 11.
Zoë Madonna can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @knitandlisten. Madonna’s work is supported by the Rubin Institute for Music Criticism, San Francisco Conservatory of Music, and Ann and Gordon Getty Foundation.