Yo-Yo Ma gives free concert in Montreal subway

His free concert in the métro was part of his “Bach project,” to play Johann Sebastian Bach’s six suites for solo cello in 36 places on six continents.

With the subway rumbling underneath and a cold wind penetrating from the outside, Place des Arts métro station on a Saturday afternoon was not quite the black-tie venue and ideal acoustic theatre Yo-Yo Ma was used to.

But when the renowned musician made his way through the crowd with his $2.5-million cello on his back, the station was immediately transformed into a concert hall, and its patrons into patrons of the arts — if only for a brief time. 

“This is fantastic — in the métro, for everyone,” Ma said, greeting the crowd in French. “And now I want to play something for you and we’ll see what happens.”

Corralled behind police tape to allow other métro users to bypass the concert, hundreds of fans immediately fell silent as the Chinese-American virtuoso began to play the Bach suites for solo cello, for which he has become famous the world over.

This time, however, the concert incorporated not only the métro passing by, but the sounds of birds chirping and church clocks chiming as quintessential sounds of Montreal.

Along with his sold-out concert at the Maison Symphonique on Friday Night, Ma’s free concert in the métro was part of his “Bach project,” to play Johann Sebastian Bach’s six suites for solo cello in 36 places on six continents.

Following big concerts around the world, “days of action” are designed to use culture — and specifically Bach’s music — to bring people together to understand each other and build a stronger society.

In August, Ma played at an amphitheatre in Denver, then in September, he played in Leipzig, Germany, before returning to Washington, D.C., in November.

On Saturday, he set up a makeshift stage at the Place des Arts métro.

“In the métro, you’re all linked together because you’re travelling together every day from one place to another,” said the softspoken Ma, who has been a United Nations Messenger of Peace since 2006. “This is what unites us.”

After a few poetry readings in English, French and Spanish accompanied by the cello, Ma then played a rousing jig, and one last song, “that for me, means Montreal” — Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah.

Everyone knew the chorus.

As patrons of the arts turned back into metro riders, STM president Philippe Schnobb thanked Ma and everyone else that had worked on the multimedia show.

“This is art in the métro,” Schnobb said. Some people had come to the station specifically to see Yo-Yo Ma perform, while others stumbled upon the concert, he said.

“They will go home and say: “I don’t know what happened this afternoon, I went out to run some errands and I ended up singing Hallelujah with Yo-Yo Ma.”

The concert was live-streamed on the transit agency’s Facebook page.