Columnist Susan Wozniak: Yo-Yo Ma’s music that built a community

  • Cellist Yo-Yo Ma, a 19-time Grammy award winner who has recorded more than 100 albums and performed on concert stages throughout the world, played at Tanglewood this summer. JASON BELL

Published: 8/22/2019 6:00:23 PM
Modified: 8/22/2019 6:00:11 PM

“If music be the food of love, play on,” is an oft-quoted line from Shakespeare’s “Twelfth Night.” It seems like an invitation to romance but, in truth, the line is seldom quoted in full. When an actor finishes — “Give me an excess of it, that, surfeiting, the appetite may sicken, and so die” — we no longer have dreams of romantic snuggles. We wonder why a man as young as the speaker, whose name is Orsino, is so bitter.

Orsino is in the throes of unrequited love. He stands for all that music does for us. Couples sometimes have their special song, which may be played at their wedding. If the romance disintegrates, then the song annoys. When the love of my life died, I put together a playlist of nine songs that I repeated until I dropped to the floor and finally cried.

For several months, that music maintained me. Over time, the list expanded to 29 songs which, despite being about leaving a loved one, and, having words like ghost and sorrow in their titles, are now songs of comfort.

This summer was not a time for melancholy music. I enjoyed live performances by my favorites, folk rock singer and guitar genius Richard Thompson, and English blues revival legend John Mayall. I was finally able to see and hear Dave Alvin, who, along with Jimmy Dale Gilmore, presented an evening of Outlaw Country, hard driving rock and tender folk ballads.

While in England, I heard the choir of Christ Church College, Oxford, sing vespers at a High Anglican service, then walked the streets of Stratford where opera singers busk. In a crowded Dublin bar, I listened to fiddlers young and old rotate through a traditional seisiun. In Galway, I was entertained by an amazing bar band, then was awe-struck by three guitarists, improvising in a jazz-rock style on the street.

But, the best music of the summer was earned by patience. When the Tanglewood flyer arrived, I flipped through the pages. There was one performance I didn’t want to miss. YoYo Ma playing the Bach solo cello suites. I emailed my Berkshire friends, asking did they want to go. Of course, they did.

When I called to order tickets, the Shed was sold out. My friends left it up to me whether to buy lawn seats immediately or wait for four seats — not necessarily together — to be turned back. On the day before I left for Europe, my phone rang. In the window were the words, “The Boston Symphony Orchestra.” The young man who called was as excited as I was. “Susan? We have your tickets and there are four together!”

That was good news. We hadn’t cared if the seats were together. We just wanted to hear YoYo Ma play Bach. But we would discover that the experience was meant to be shared. The day was perfect. Sunny but not too warm. The seats were good with fine sight lines. We were excited.

Our eyes were drawn repeatedly to the ceiling, lit in a comforting shade of blue. We sighted a few celebrities in the crowd. YoYo entered quietly, wearing a business suit and tie, beaming at his audience. The audience broke into applause as he quietly sat down, adjusted his cello and his bow and began to play.

Bach was both a man of his time and of ours. I sometimes turn on the radio, and, without a spoken introduction, begin listening to early music, in this case, the Baroque. The movement ends and the next movement, with its atonal sounds, leaves me asking when was this composed. I am drawn in and conclude, “It has to be Bach.” It almost always is.

This is not easy music. It is complex and sometimes dark. In Ma’s hands, the music built a community. Our absolute stillness as we listened bound us together. The music touched us deep inside. He spoke before the third suite, which he described as celebratory. It opens with a sound quite like the running of happy children. Bright, major key melodies flowed through the piece.

Then, he spoke again to introduce the fifth suite. Written in C minor, it is moodier and more introspective. YoYo dedicated this to all who have experienced loss — of loved ones, of health and of dignity. It was balm for the troubled world outside those lovely grounds and for us, who were wrapped in his music and his love.

Our small community of friends walked away, full of the music of the larger community created by this gifted artist, playing superb music.

A native of Michigan, Susan Wozniak belongs to three alumni associations with at least one other woman named Susan Wozniak in each. She can be reached at

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