Yo-Yo Ma Captivates A Nearly Silent Crowd At Red Rocks

Daniel Mescher/CPR Classical
Yo-Yo Ma on the stage at Red Rocks Amphitheatre on Aug. 1, 2018.

A world-class musician, sitting on a simple chair, performing alone with his cello on a nearly empty stage was all it took to stun a sold-out Red Rocks Amphitheatre crowd into complete silence.

Yo-Yo Ma captivated more than 9,000 concertgoers with his two-and-a-half-hour performance of Johann Sebastian Bach’s six Cello Suites on Wednesday night.

“You can always tell the concentration of an audience from the kind of attention or silence that accompanies their listening,” Ma said while speaking to CPR Classical just before the show. Click the audio link above to hear the interview.

“I’ve never been surrounded by so many thousands of quiet people. You heard the music, of course, but also the breeze coming down the mountain, and a bird off in the scrub oak. And the occasional plastic cup tipping over. The spectacle was all in Ma’s face: the tilt of his eyes, the angle of his chin, a smile or a determined purse on his lips. No. 5 is the lonesomest suite, and when it was over he lingered longer than the others before dropping his bow, allowing us to cheer. One man on this vast stage, with this music and his beautiful instrument, carried us through a thousand different moods. Stunning.”

-- CPR Audio Editor Jon Pinnow

Photo: Yo-Yo Ma Performing At Red Rocks Wideshot with Cellist On Stage
Sold-out crowd at Red Rocks Amphitheatre listens intently to Yo-Yo Ma performing the Bach Cello Suites.

Ma had performed the cello suites for another enormous crowd at the Hollywood Bowl last year. He called that concert an experiment.

“We didn’t know what would happen. We had no idea. But this was an experiment to say ... 'Is music, or you know, the Cello Suites -- does it work for that number of people?' Because it works, always, one-on-one, because that’s how we take in any experience,” Ma said.

The experiment undoubtedly worked and Ma is now taking Bach’s beloved cello suites, often performed in intimate settings, to six continents in the next two years. He kicked off the tour with a symbolic performance at Colorado’s most famous outdoor venue.

“The rocks --  200 million years old … It is right in the heart of nature, geological nature. I think that’s the thing that gives us perspective, which is what I hope music always does, art does. And it give us that kind of placement of ‘Where do we put ourselves in the larger context of the world, of the universe, of geological planetary age?’” Ma said. “The reason I’m doing all those pieces right now, together, is, in a way, an attempt to try to say something about a composer that has been able to explore in-depth all of nature and human nature.

"That’s kind of a fundamental question these days. Because we are literally thinking about, ‘Well, what our home planet is, you know, as in nature, and also 'How we are going to live? What type of life we’re going to have on this planet?' So, at the large scale but also I think specifically in Colorado, in Denver, nobody lives day to day without being aware of the majesty of the Rockies. So this is a constant. The sky and the mountains are so much a part of everybody’s life.”

Photo: Yo-Yo Ma Performing At Red Rocks Closeup Shot Of Cellist Smiling
Yo-Yo Ma on the stage at Red Rocks Amphitheatre on Aug. 1, 2018.

“The iconic cellist took this audience into the heart and mind of Bach tonight. Such passion and delivery. So natural that I don't think he had to think about one note. That's the only explanation for 10,000 people sitting in complete silence through all two hours of the solo Cello Suites. I've been coming here for concerts for 35 years, and never experienced anything like it. One man. One cello. Thousands of private conversations he had with each of us at once. My daughter and dear friends by my side. I won't soon forget.

"And then the encore. In my life outside of radio. I lead the board of a small nonprofit called El Sistema Colorado that provides access to music for kids in underserved communities. Three weeks ago Yo-Yo Ma's office called to invite them to play onstage with him. They played with poise and heart! Brett Mitchell, Colorado Symphony Music Director conducted Bach's Air on the G String. A night to remember indeed."

-- CPR Classical Program Director Monika Vischer​

More coverage featured in Wednesday's live broadcast on CPR Classical: