Yo-Yo Ma brings world to tears with poignant ‘Amazing Grace’ at inauguration concert

21 January 2021, 11:43 | Updated: 21 January 2021, 15:12

Yo-Yo Ma plays poignant ‘Amazing Grace’ at Biden inauguration concert
Yo-Yo Ma plays poignant ‘Amazing Grace’ at Biden inauguration concert. Picture: YouTube/Biden Inaugural Committee

By Maddy Shaw Roberts

A global musical treasure delivered a message of love and hope at last night’s inauguration. And Twitter could not deal…

Music, as ever, played an important role at the 2021 presidential inauguration.

There were performances from Hamilton architect Lin-Manuel Miranda and pop stars Demi Lovato and Justin Timberlake, all at a ceremony hosted by Tom Hanks, along with a typically iconic moment from Lady Gaga, who was on national anthem duty earlier in the day.

But the moment everyone ostensibly ran to Twitter for was cellist Yo-Yo Ma’s stirring take on ‘Amazing Grace’ at the evening’s Celebrating America concert.

Speaking from Boston, Ma delivered a message of hope before his performance: “We have been tested these last 10 months as individuals, families and communities. But in the midst of devastation and loss, there were moments when a flickering light pointed us toward a brighter future.”

Holding his dignified instrument, the American musician dedicated his short recital to the people’s resilience in times of trouble. “You brought us comfort, you sustained us. And so, that light grew. And became a bright beam in the universe.

“This is for all of you who found new ways for us to smile together.”

Read more: A professional soprano appraises Lady Gaga’s inauguration performance >

Shifting up and down the octave to bring light and shade to his performance, Ma threw in some double stops for rich harmonic beauty, ending the traditional hymn with a delicate fusion of Dvořák’s ‘Going Home’ melody and the spiritual ‘Simple Gifts’.

It was a moment that touched the nation, and the world.

“No words, and so moving,” tweeted jazz singer-songwriter Ori Dagan.

“Oh, God. Yo-Yo Ma is going to make millions cry. Yes. He. Is,” another user wrote.

“Yo-Yo Ma is a national treasure,” author Nancy Wang Yuen tweeted, while writer Emily Tamkin added: “Not to be weird about this but could Yo-Yo Ma come on television every night to calmly tell us we’re doing the best we can.”

While most of the Inauguration Day performances were enjoyed virtually due to COVID-19 restrictions, the 46th President Joe Biden enjoyed an almost-private serenade when Ma began to play.

Standing beneath the great statue of Abraham Lincoln in Washington, Biden was filmed listening through a speaker as Ma’s performance was being aired.

The 18-time Grammy-winning cellist has a history of soundtracking moments in US politics. Aged just seven years old, the young prodigy played for 34th and 35th US Presidents Dwight D. Eisenhower and John F. Kennedy. He also performed a duet with Condoleezza Rice, former Secretary of State, and was presented with the 2001 National Medal of Arts by George W Bush and Laura Bush.

Ma, who holds the Presidential Medal of Freedom, also performed at the inauguration of Barack Obama in an infamously all-star quartet with Itzhak Perlman, Gabriela Montero and Anthony McGill, who together premiered a new John Williams work.

Throughout the pandemic, Ma has been delivering cello offerings on Twitter, bringing peace through music in a time of pain for many. Here’s one he shared earlier this week – a transcendent moment from Bach’s Cello Suite No. 1. Just listen:

Two years ago, in September 2018, Ma told Classic FM he believed the music of Bach could bring people together at a time of division in society.

“He feels your pain, he feels my pain, he feels everybody’s pain and everybody’s joy. People go through illnesses, exams and difficult periods… and somehow it’s supportive.”