World-renowned cellist Yo-Yo Ma brought his Bach Project to the sister cities of Laredo, Texas, and Nuevo Laredo, Mexico, on Saturday. Laredo’s “Day of Action” featured performances in both cities to celebrate the relationship between the two communities.
Ma played the opening notes of J.S. Bach's "Suite No. 1 for Unaccompanied Cello" in a park near the Juarez-Lincoln International Bridge, one of the crossings that connect the U.S. and Mexican cities.
The Laredo performance took place on an elevated stage before an audience of officials and onlookers. Concerns over possible rain disappeared as Ma began to play in the morning sunshine.
It was part of his Bach Project, which uses the 300-year-old music to explore connections between cultures. The project has taken him all over the world. On Friday it brought him to Laurie Auditorium at Trinity University in San Antonio, and on Saturday it brought him to Laredo, within a few feet of the Rio Grande.
"As you all know, as you did and do and will do, in culture, we build bridges, not walls," he said. After his performance, he gestured to the bridge. "I’ve lived my life at the borders. Between cultures. Between disciplines. Between musics. Between generations."
Mateo Bailey, 16, lives in San Antonio. He grew up in El Paso, plays the cello, and is the son of Grammy Award-winning cellist Zuill Bailey.
He felt Ma’s performance had special significance "because this event is on the border. And I’m half-Mexican as well as half-American … and for him to connect cello with what’s happening in the world is like, it’s a cultural bridge that was just built, and it’s amazing."
Betty DeLeon praised the cellist for visiting. "It speaks of him. What a wonderful human being to take his time and come to our tiny little town to share the importance of culture. On the border. It’s amazing. It’s a privilege to be a part of this."
Pete Saenz, mayor of Laredo, said despite the river and despite the bridge spanning overhead, the border is one community.
"And although people may perceive us as being so different, we’re not," he said. "Here the border is extremely unique in that it’s one organism. I’ve always said we’re interdependent, interconnected. We survived because the border side survives, especially here on the border area."
This “Day of Action” also included a performance in Plaza Juarez in Nuevo Laredo, a few blocks from the international crossing. Its overall theme was an appreciation for the connections between the two cities, which see themselves as one community.
Ma was originally scheduled to play on the actual bridge, which would have been briefly closed. The planned closure would've been a collaborative effort between officials and residents on both sides of the border. But the increased border wait times the performance would have caused convinced officials to move the locale to the Tres Laredos Park near the crossings.
The famous cellist has studied and performed the German composer's music for six decades.
In 2018, Ma set out on a two-year journey to perform Bach’s six suites for cello in 36 locations around the world. He felt the music had an ability to connect cultures and humanity from all walks of life. He said that is what motivated him to launch the project.
Ma was pleased with the visit, and he shared his impressions in an interview with Norma Martinez, host of TPR’s “Morning Edition” and “Fronteras,” following the performances.
“I want to see for myself,” he said, explaining his motivations, “and what I discover is two fabulous communities of people that are giving to one another [and] that care for one another.”
“I love these two cities,” Ma added. “I felt I was so welcomed into ... their spaces, and it's left an indelible mark in my memory.”
Dan Katz and Fernando Ortiz Jr. contributed to this report.