San Antonio and J.S. Bach’s Suites for Solo Cello, written between 1717 and 1723, have something in common: Both are 300 years old. What better setting to experience world famous cellist Yo-Yo Ma performing them than at the Mission Marquee Plaza, in the shadow of Mission San José.
While 2,705 ticketed audience members will enjoy Yo-Yo Ma live onstage Friday night at Trinity University’s sold-out Laurie Auditorium, an anticipated crowd of 1,500 will also partake in the concert, thanks to some innovative thinking by John Toohey, Arts San Antonio president and executive director, and Yo-Yo Ma’s manager Mary Pat Buerkle.
“The rationale was that if the indoor concert sold out, we should celebrate that by sharing it at no cost to others,” Toohey said.
The result of their conversations is that, for the first time, an Arts San Antonio concert will be simulcast live, to an anticipated audience of 1,500 San Antonians. “I love the access energy that Yo-Yo Ma puts out front, and his people represent and support that,” Toohey said.
Thanks to technological innovation, the 8 p.m. concert will be livestreamed to a Slab Cinema screen in the plaza, with what Toohey assures will be excellent sound and visuals. Five cameras inside the Laurie Auditorium will be directed by Taylor Stakes, Trinity’s video and multimedia manager, for the livestreamed projection.
The concert will also be simulcast to Texas A&M International University (TAMIU) in Laredo, which was part of the plan from the beginning. Arts San Antonio presented Yo-Yo Ma in 2011, and because of Toohey’s longstanding relationship with the much in-demand cellist’s management representatives, San Antonio was a good fit for a return trip. However, Yo-Yo Ma’s focus also ranged closer to the border.
The Friday concert is the first of a two-day Texas visit, one of 36 stops on Ma’s two-year worldwide tour called The Bach Project. The tour is not just about music. It’s also a consciousness-raising effort, addressing social issues at both global and local levels. What Ma calls “Days of Action” follow each concert in each hosting city, asking questions pertinent to the region.
The previous stop was March 25-27 in Mexico City, with a Day of Action asking, “What is the responsibility of a 21st century cultural capital?” The Texas stop asks, “How can culture build bridges in border communities?”
“What’s going on at the border is so topical right now,” Toohey said. “That was really powerful to them, to work on this theme of being connected by shared values of culture” in the current divisive moment.
“[Ma] threw out a challenge to us,” said Brendan Townsend, music director of the Laredo Philharmonic, which will host Ma’s border visit. The challenge was: “Tell me what culture connects us in your community,” Townsend said.
A series of conversations among community leaders in Laredo resulted in a pachanga, “which is a Laredo thing,” he said, involving a festive combination of music, dance, Earth Day-related celebrations, and – most important, Townsend said – food, “because this is Laredo. Everything revolves around food.”
More seriously, though, Townsend said, Ma wants to inspire a conversation about the role of culture in society. When asking how culture connects us, the word is meant to be broadly defined. “It’s not about the arts, it’s not about the Latino community, it’s not about the predicament of Mexican versus American. This is not about politics,” Townsend explained.
“When I moved here [30 years ago], you could literally drive across the border for breakfast,” which is no longer the case, he said. Ma’s Day of Action will provoke Laredo-specific questions of “how will we see this culture continue its uniqueness over the next 20 years? How do we want our grandchildren to see culture in this community? And let’s not just allow it to happen but shape what we want that to be. This event is the start of that conversation.”
The Laredo Day of Action was to begin with a literal bridging of cultures, with Ma playing a cello suite on the Juárez-Lincoln International Bridge connecting Nuevo Laredo, Mexico, with Laredo. That portion of the event is now “Bach on the Border” – on both sides of the border – at Tres Laredos Park at 9 a.m. and at Plaza Laredo in Nuevo Laredo at 11 a.m.
Interspersed among the concerts are private conversations with youth, seniors, and cultural and community leaders from both cities. The day culminates in Pachanga at the Park, on the banks of the Rio Grande, a large-scale event free and open to the public.
Ma will join the Laredo Philharmonic for serenades and a special performance of Laredo composer Colin Campbell’s Rapsodia, a piece of music written specifically to cross borders, Townsend said.
The full composition pays tribute to the room-sized Sharkey-Corrigan Organ at TAMIU, which Townsend calls “one of the finest instruments of its kind.” The final movement also incorporates mariachis, another longstanding Laredo tradition, and the South African rhythms of Campbell’s native country.
Ma will sit in the very back, as an equal member of the cello section, Townsend said, a gesture that privileges culture above fame.
“Am I nervous about conducting him? No,” he said. “It’s a great honor. It’s a tremendous buzz to be able to say hey, I conducted Yo-Yo-Ma, but the really cool part about that,” Townsend said, is that Ma will join kids from all of Laredo’s student strings programs in performing Beethoven’s Ode to Joy in the park.
“I think that’s what he was looking for when he asks how does culture connect us,” Townsend said.
No tickets are necessary for the Friday Mission Marquee Plaza simulcast event. Arts San Antonio requested RSVPs to better anticipate crowd size, but they are not necessary. It opens at 6 p.m., with live music performances starting at 7 p.m. before the 8 p.m. simulcast.
Day of Action events in Laredo begin at 9 a.m. Some are free and open to the public. For more information, check here.