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Leipzig, Germany

September 2, 2018

In the first days of September, Yo-Yo brought the Bach Project to Leipzig, Germany, where J.S. Bach lived and worked for nearly thirty years. On the 2nd, he played the suites for an intimate audience in in Leipzig’s Nikolaikirche, the church where some of Bach’s most well-known works were first performed.

The day before, he collaborated with the community, exploring how culture connects us. In the morning, Yo-Yo joined academics, activists, and artists for a public conversation hosted in partnership with the Gewandhaus, exploring Kultur als Brücke für ein Miteinander in Vielfalt? (How can culture be a bridge for togetherness in a diverse society?) Participants included Oliver Decker, Director of the Center for Research of Right-Wing Extremism and Democracy at the University of Leipzig; Thabet Azzawi, oudist; Anna Kaleri, author; and Duy Tran, journalist.

The conversation was framed by music from Klänge der Hoffnung (Sounds of Hope), which brings together musicians of many backgrounds — Syrian and German, Bangladeshi and Polish, Jewish and Muslim — to create music and celebrate the possibility of connection across difference.

Yo-Yo spent the afternoon in Neustadt with the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra as part of its Gewandhaustag, playing in a public park and meeting with the community. Writing in the New York Times, Zachary Woolfe, captured the energy of Yo-Yo’s time in Leipzig:

While it’s impossible not to think of Johann Sebastian Bach as you walk through this city, where he spent the final decades of his life, what little remains of his world here has been altered almost beyond recognition.

The house where he and his family lived was demolished a century ago. Next door, St. Thomas Church, where Bach was a cantor from 1723 to 1750, was overhauled in Gothic Revival style in the 1880s. St. Nicholas Church, where the “St. John Passion” was first performed in 1724, got its current cupcake-pastel interior decades after Bach died.

And Bach certainly would never have heard Arabic being widely spoken, as it is now, in the bustling, largely immigrant neighborhood of Neustadt. It was here, on a mild weekend afternoon recently, that Yo-Yo Ma bounded into a room in a community center, Stradivarius cello in hand, and moved swiftly around a seated circle of adults and children, grinning and giving one long high five.

“The most important thing is to bring all of yourself into a moment,” he said the next day. “If for even one second you’re like, ‘Oh, I have to go do this,’ people are really smart. They can see when someone is there, or just not quite there.”

Mr. Ma, 62, was entirely there. He stayed in the community center only about half an hour, but without seeming rushed, he blended disarming generosity — he gave two budding cellists his instrument to try out in front of the group — with a kind of subtle social work.

“Learning a new piece is like moving from one place to another,” he said in answer to someone’s question, connecting music-making to the lives of the migrants without making too big a deal of it. 

Read more about Yo-Yo, Leipzig, and Bach in the New York Times.

Photos © Mustafah Abdulaziz for the New York Times (top and middle); © Jens Gerber (bottom)

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