Sarah Britten Art

Paintings in lipstick

Yo-Yo Ma and the Bach Project at Kirstenbosch

Yo-Yo Ma at Kristenbosch in lipstick

I have three great loves (apart from the human beings in my life): writing, art and music. Art came first, because I could wield a crayon before I learned to read music. But only just. One of my earliest memories is of playing Bach’s Musette in D major for my teachers and classmates at nursery school, when I was six years old. Though as a preschooler I could draw exceptionally well for my age, to the point where my classmates would watch in amazement (a thrill I’ve never quite overcome), I never considered art as career. Instead, I always wanted to be a concert pianist.


It was when I was eight years old that I discovered the joy of writing when my Std 1 teacher, Mrs Hooton, encouraged me. When I finally accepted that I would never be good enough to be a professional musician, at the age of 13, it was writing that took the place of music.


Fast forward almost four decades, and I love all three still, though none of them resulted in a career, and my precocity has long since faded into a permanent, rather wan state of has-been or never-was.  I was the classic overachiever doomed to eternal disappointment, but I am still very grateful to my parents for encouraging a love of all of these things, and to my education for making it easier for me to appreciate and access them.


In this painting, I combine art,  music and writing, catalysed by one extraordinary concert. Last night, I watched Yo-Yo Ma play all six Bach Cello Suites as part of his global Bach Project tour. Yo-Yo-Ma has been my musical hero for the best part of a quarter of a century, and the chance to see him perform in person will remain one of the highlights of my life. The combination of the stage at Kirstenbosch, the glorious music – surely the Cello Suites are one of the crowning artistic achievements of  human endeavour in any medium – and in the last few minutes, during the 6th Suite, the rising of the full moon over the concert pavilion.


I love Bach, my favourite composer: the Goldberg Variations, the keyboard suites, the Brandenburg, Concertos, the cantatas. I had Sheep May Safely Graze played at my first wedding, and I love it still despite the associations with a failed marriage. As a piano player who has never mastered a stringed instrument (one of the great regrets of my life),  I will say this: that there is something profoundly personal about Bach on the cello, as if he himself is singing over the 300 years that separates us. No counterpoint, no fugue structure, as in the case of his keyboard works: just melody and rhythm, pared to the bone.


This concert was as close as a concert gets to collective meditation.  It was remarkable to see how 5000 people could sit, many of them in uncomfortable positions, for more than two and a half hours, watching one man play an instrument that dates from the 18th century, and cheer for him like a rock star. The human bladder is not designed to keep going for the two and a half hours of the concert, especially when wine is involved, and there were many people crossing back and forth in front of the the stage – but Yo-Yo Ma stayed completely focused throughout. I was grateful for my picnic blanket and the pillow I borrowed from the Road Lodge, which I propped up against one of the legs of a platform used by one of the cameramen.

“Culture connects us” was the message of the concert, and indeed of the Bach Project overall. In this painting, I’ve used purple and blue for the sky, drawing on the lilac tones of the pavilion roof as dusk settled in. I’ve also brought through the lighting at the event, bright blue and luminous green. If I were to paint the way the suites sound (as opposed to how I felt during the evening), they would be the colour of a cello: warm, amber, deep, the colours of aged wood and brandy and setting sun. It is the sound of love, the sound I imagine the moon would make if it could sing. The writing in the painting is multilayered a statement of how I felt, extracts from all six suites (staves are hideously difficult to draw freehand without smudging the lipstick so forgive me for their messiness), as well as illustrations of trees and leaves, birds (the sombre bulbuls whose calls echoed the music) and one star-struck moth.

Yo-Yo Ma at Kristenbosch in lipstick
The transcendence of Bach Yo-Yo Ma at Kirstensbosch

I like the way the base clef symbol reminds me of 80’s era collision patterns of quarks in colliders. I’ve linked the light of the moon to the metaphorical light of the music and the creative energy of the person we were all there to see. The paint (technically, lipstick) is still wet, and as it drives, the reflection you see in this image will fade away, and the colours will deepen.

Yo-Yo Ma has remarkable energy and stage presence: he delights in creating these moments with his audiences, and they respond. You can see that he never goes through the motions, though he must have played these suites hundreds of times over the decades. He always brings everything he has to this shared experience. At the end, when he accompanied Zolani Mahola who sang Johnny Clegg’s Asibonanga, the intense concentration as he sightread the music, and the delight in making it, was palpable. He is one of the world’s great classical musicians, a consummate master of his craft, but he remains humble and joyful, completely devoid of cynicism. If there is one person I would love to meet and have a conversation with, it is him.

I’ve lived with depression for much my life, and it was particularly bad around the time I decided to hell with it and booked tickets I couldn’t afford to a concert I never imagined I’d attend. Yo-Yo Ma at Kirstenbosch in February 2020 gave me so many moments I was very glad I was alive to witness. Culture truly connects us – it is what makes life worth living, after all.

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