Renowned cellist Yo-Yo Ma perfoms at the Three Laredo Park during the Day of Action Bach on the Border.
Renowned cellist Yo-Yo Ma performs Saturday at Tres Laredo Park after a Friday night performance in San Antonio. Credit: Ulysses Romero for the San Antonio Report

Friday night at Mission Marquee Plaza, overcast skies eventually cleared to reveal a bright half-moon, its line of light and shadow perfectly splitting the brightly glowing sphere. Below, a crowd of 900 gathered to witness cellist Yo-Yo Ma play the J.S. Bach Suites for Solo Cello that made him world famous.

Ma was actually at Trinity University’s Laurie Auditorium, playing solo onstage for a crowd of 2,705 ticketed audience members, but presenter Arts San Antonio had arranged a free livestream simulcast of the concert to the Southside plaza for all to enjoy. Food truck generators whirred in the background behind cries of children playing with glow sticks and Frisbees, the smell of fresh kettle popcorn wafting in the night breezes.

Sue Mendez waited in line, hoping to order a meatless version of the chorizo and shrimp quesadilla from Raulito’s East Street, one of the on-hand food trucks. Mendez said she grew up on the East Side and had gone to the Mission Marquee regularly when it was still a drive-in theater, and she relished the notion of revisiting it on the occasion of Ma’s performance.

“This man is a living legend,” Mendez said. “People around the world will flock to see him and I figured this truly is the chance of a lifetime for me to witness a virtuoso.”

Yo-Yo Ma performs at Trinity University.
Yo-Yo Ma performs at Trinity University’s Laurie Auditorium. Credit: Courtesy / Anh-Viet Dinh / Trinity University

But Ma is a man on a mission. The San Antonio concert was one of 36 worldwide concerts of The Bach Project, Ma’s six-continent tour spanning two years, in diverse locations such as San Juan, Puerto Rico; Christchurch, New Zealand; and Leipzig, Germany. His stated purpose is not simply to bring widely loved music and his own talents to concert venues around the world, but to raise consciousness of pertinent social and political issues affecting communities around those venues. In each tour location a community-collaborative Day of Action follows the concert, with arts activities, civic conversations, and special performances.

Ma chose South Texas specifically because of simmering tensions around immigration, trade, the border, and the relationship between Mexico and the United States. The Friday concert was also simulcast to Texas A&M International University (TAMIU) in Laredo, the site of his Day of Action the following day.

Friday in San Antonio

Victoria Garcia had seen Ma perform at the Majestic Theatre in 2011 but was too late to get tickets for the Trinity show. She compensated by arranging a full-on picnic for herself and friends at the plaza, complete with wine, cheese, sushi, hummus, nylon camp chairs, and a recycled plastic woven rug, laid out on the lawn.

Enjoying preconcert live performances by Urban-15’s drum and dance corps, Nicholas Garcia-Hettinger’s solo violin, woodwind quartet Saxalorian’s lively Klezmer tunes, Garcia reflected on what Ma’s music has brought to her life.

“I often will ask Siri to play Yo-Yo Ma for me, especially if I’m having a hard time sleeping or if I’m stressed out about something,” she said. “Honestly, Yo-Yo Ma has gotten me through a lot of rough times, a lot of rough spots in my life. It’s just that his music — it’s so uplifting.”

Of the Bach cello Suites in particular, Ma himself writes in his program introduction that “they have given me sustenance, comfort, and joy during times of stress, celebration, and loss.”

On Friday night he dedicated the mournful, tonally complex 5th suite to San Antonio’s military families and, more generally, to anyone who had suffered a loss. “This is for all of you, but especially for those who have lost a dear one,” he said.

San Antonio poet Kamala Platt listened quietly off to the side as the Prélude began. Her mother passed away two years ago, she said, and a cousin had played the piece at her memorial service. Afterward, she said she’s known of Ma’s music for years and likes his current activism. “There’s stuff that’s just so profound” about complex global issues like climate change, Platt said, and “you can’t get to that necessarily in words.”

Ma also addressed students and youth in the audience, suggesting that fostering creativity will help solve problems afflicting the world. “Sometimes the world gets more complicated, so we need everybody to help with the solutions,” he said. “So as you get stronger and with more abilities, there are also bigger problems to solve.”

The five children of the Zuñiga family listened intently, sitting quietly with parents José Sr. and Carolina on a picnic blanket. For now, 5-year-old Fausto said the music makes him happy. Eleven-year-old José Jr. has been practicing violin for three months, working on the Queen song We Will Rock You. He finds the mix of rock ‘n’ roll with a classical instrument compelling. “That’s what makes it interesting,” he said, echoing Ma’s longstanding interest in mixing musical genres and cultures, which came to full realization in 1998 with Ma’s Silkroad Ensemble, an extended exercise in what he terms “radical cultural collaboration.”

At Laurie Auditorium, cello and accordion were brought together, along with the bajo sexto traditionally underpinning conjunto music, for Ma’s encore with Flaco Jiménez and Stevie Ray Vavages of Conjunto Bravo. Gasps and loud cheers were audible as Flaco took the stage to play Las Golondrinas. The encore earned standing ovations both in the auditorium and at the outdoor plaza, with about 300 audience members left at the end of the 2 ½-hour concert.

Flaco Jimenez (center) performs “Las Golondrinas” with Yo-Yo Ma (right).
Surprise guest performers (from left) Stevie Ray Vavages and Flaco Jiménez play <i>Las Golondrinas</i> with Yo-Yo Ma. Credit: Courtesy / Anh-Viet Dinh / Trinity University

Saturday in Los Dos Laredos

Yo-Yo Ma’s The Bach Project brings his vision of cultural collaboration to the political arena, specifically seeking collaboration in each concert locale to show “how culture connects us,” the central question that spurs each Day of Action following the concerts.

A proposed wall on the southern border of the U.S. could cut right through Los Dos Laredos, the intimately connected cities of Laredo in the U.S. and Nuevo Laredo in Mexico.

Early Saturday, Ma appeared in Laredo to perform live on the northern bank of the Rio Grande, for a crowd of 300 assembled in Tres Laredos Park. The mayors of each city, Pete Saenz of Laredo and Enrique Rivas of Nuevo Laredo, jointly introduced the performance of the Suite No. 1 in G Major: Prélude.

“No where else in the world do you find a border where the countries are so distinct yet so connected,” Saenz announced, “and yet in Laredo these differences are subtle. We speak the same languages, we have family and friends on both sides of this international border, and most importantly, we live as one large and diverse community. This, Yo-Yo, is a perfect example of how culture unites us, here in Los Dos Laredos.” He then presented Ma with the key to the city.

Ma took the stage under the clear sky and bright sun. He freely acknowledged members of the audience as he played, smiling at them before being reabsorbed into his music. A small flock of swallows accompanied his cello, twittering around a whirring drone above the crowd.

Once he finished the third movement, Courante, Ma spoke to the audience.

“I’ve lived my life at the borders,” he said, “between cultures, between disciplines, between musics, between generations.” He then made “three little statements”: first, that “a country is not a hotel, and it’s not full!” Second, that “in culture, we seek truth and understanding,” and third, that in culture, “we build bridges, not walls!” Each statement received enthusiastic applause.

Ma was then spirited across Gateway to the Americas International Bridge, the vehicle and pedestrian span connecting the two cities and two countries, to engage in a private conversation with 150 civic leaders and young artists in Nuevo Laredo’s Estacion Palabra, a library and community center dedicated to Colombian author Gabriel García Márquez, who spent many years in Mexico.

Yo-Yo Ma listens intently to young ballerina Heidi Zavala and cellist Javier Cruz, both of Nuevo Laredo. Credit: Nicholas Frank / San Antonio Report

In conversation with four arts students, ballerina Heidi Zavala, cellist Javier Cruz, Flutist Teresa Modesto, and soprano Yamileth Sotelo, Ma spoke of persevering against challenges and the importance of community. In doing so, he revealed something of himself and, possibly, his approach to music.

“I’ve never said this in public before,” he said through an interpreter in response to a story from Cruz. “I used to play chess also, and I was very lonely, so I had nobody to play with. So I would play both sides, which is hard to do, because how can you not know your own mind when you’re playing the opposite side?”

Cruz made an important discovery, Ma said, in overcoming his own challenges as a musician and chess player: “having access to your feelings, as well as being able to have very good analytical and strategic thinking. Those two things, if you combine them as you have, is one of the secrets of life.”

A windstorm swept through town as Ma led a small orchestral ensemble from Escuela de Música del DIF de Nuevo Laredo first through a spirited music lesson, then through El Visitante, an original march written for the occasion by Nuevo Laredo composer Enrique Medina.

By the time 400 citizens of both countries had crowded around a small stage fronting Plaza Juárez in Nuevo Laredo, clouds had dispersed and bright sunlight illuminated Ma’s second border performance of the Suite No. 1 Prélude. He read his message to the crowd in Spanish, then played. As in San Antonio, the music mingled with sounds of the street, including car alarms, police sirens, church bells, and the chirping of birds.

Perhaps inspired by the twittering above, Ma ended his performance with a tribute to his own hero, Spanish cellist Pablo Casals, who was known for ending each of his shows with the Catalan folk tune Song of the Birds, meant to protest oppression of his people.

“Do you hear the song of the birds right now?” he asked before playing. Birds are free to fly everywhere, he said. “This piece I’d like to play for you, the citizens of Nuevo Laredo, for the inner freedom that you feel, that one freedom that keeps you so strong, that makes culture stronger than politics.”

Yo-Yo Ma accepts flowers from an audience member after performing at Plaza Juárez in Nuevo Laredo, Mexico. Alfonso Peredo Ramos, director of arts and culture for Centro Cultural Nuevo Laredo, speaks to the crowd. Credit: Nicholas Frank / San Antonio Report

Laredo resident Sonia Rodriguez brought her 4-year-old grandson William to hear Ma on the northern side of the river, then came across to Nuevo Laredo to listen again. “I saw the golondrinas,” she said of the swallows flocking around his earlier performance, almost as though she knew of the Flaco Jiménez encore a day earlier. “They are like dancing with his music.”

Back in the U.S.

Following a tightly packed schedule, Ma then made his way back to the Laredo Center for the Arts to hold another civic conversation with city leaders, seniors, and students before the 2 p.m. citywide Pachanga at the Park celebration. San Antonio native and longtime Laredo resident Joe Arciniega, an ambassador for the Alzheimer’s Association San Antonio & South Texas Chapter, told of lobbying recently in Washington, D.C.

More than a few people there told him that music – cello in particular – consoles people struggling with the disease. “Cello music seems to really reach people that are really, really struggling from the depths of Alzheimer’s,” he said.

At the pachanga, Houston cellist Maya Dimitroff, fresh from having her rainbow cello case autographed in silver pen by Yo-Yo Ma, suggested why cello is so effective at reaching people.

“I think it most represents the voice, and there’s just such a beautiful range to it,” she said. “It’s the closest thing to what a human sound can make, so it’s really touching to the soul when you listen.”

In acknowledging the crowd of thousands gathered around him, Ma said, “You know how to celebrate, you know how to collaborate, you know how to live. We should learn from you. … What you’ve shown me in the 48 hours I’ve been here is a way of life that I want to emulate.”

The half-moon reappeared faintly in the sky above the festivities. In strong winds, Ma first held the music scores for the two TAMIU cellists of the combined Laredo Philharmonic and student orchestras, then joined along in their section to play Laredo resident Colin Campbell’s rhythmic, multicultural Rapsodia composition. During the piece, he closed his eyes in concentration, then finished with a signature wide sweep of his bow across the cello strings.

Responding to the applause of the audience of hundreds gathered in the hot sun, conductor Brendan Townsend asked Ma to stand, but he deferred until joined by all members of the orchestra.

After Ma left to return to his tour, Townsend declared the day a resounding success. “It was unbelievable how everybody just pulled together on this.” Looking toward the future of Los Dos Laredos, he said, “The synergy that was part of the city over the last couple of weeks, we want to continue that into the future. Then we’ll have achieved something.”

Senior Reporter Nicholas Frank moved from Milwaukee to San Antonio following a 2017 Artpace residency. Prior to that he taught college fine arts, curated a university contemporary art program, toured with...