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Amanda Gorman's poetry and Bach's music offer joint message of hope

Jan Vogler plays a 1707 Stradivari cello made during Bach's lifetime. He compares it to learning to swim in an Olympic pool: "the pressure on me is more to have imagination to match the instrument."
Zayrha Rodriguez
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NPR
Jan Vogler plays a 1707 Stradivari cello made during Bach's lifetime. He compares it to learning to swim in an Olympic pool: "the pressure on me is more to have imagination to match the instrument."

When internationally acclaimed cellist Jan Vogler saw Amanda Gormanrecite a poem at President Joe Biden's inaugurationin 2021, he instantly became a fan.

"What I admire about Amanda is her optimism that is really visionary, and we need that, I think, in our time," Vogler told NPR's Michel Martin.

Gorman was making history as America's youngest inaugural poet. Around the same time, a documentary was in the works about Vogler's collaboration with actor Bill Murray, whose amusing readings and occasional dancing punctuated a piano trio. So Vogler had an idea: what about pairing the Bach Cello Suites with Gorman's poetry? The two join forces on stage at New York's Carnegie Hall on Saturday, Feb. 17.

Poet Amanda Gorman reads a poem during the 59th presidential inauguration at the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C. on January 20, 2021.
Patrick Semansky / AFP via Getty Images
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AFP via Getty Images
Poet Amanda Gorman reads a poem during the 59th presidential inauguration at the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C. on January 20, 2021.

"We're bringing something from the past into a modern, contemporary feel. And we're doing it with poetry that I have never performed with music before," said Gorman, a self-avowed "huge fan of cello." It's unclear whether the collaboration is a one-off event or whether it might organically lead to additional public happenings.

Johann Sebastian Bach's six Cello Suites — believed to have been composed between 1717 and 1723 — are a staple of the instrument's repertoire. Cellists usually begin playing some of the movements early on, returning to them repeatedly over the course of their lives.

Amanda Gorman declares herself a "huge fan of the cello," noting it's "one of the instruments I relate to the most," and enjoys writing to its music.
Danny Williams / Sun Literary Arts
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Sun Literary Arts
Amanda Gorman declares herself a "huge fan of the cello," noting it's "one of the instruments I relate to the most," and enjoys writing to its music.

At turns simple and complex, the suites express the whole range of human emotions. Performing, and especially recording, the entire set is dubbed the "Mount Everest" of cellists. Vogler has already completed the feat.

For their joint project, Gorman reads some of her poetry, including "New Day's Lyric," while Vogler plays the first, third and fifth Bach cello suites. That poem speaks of struggle and resilience, ending with "Come over, join this day just begun. / For wherever we come together, / We will forever overcome."

Vogler describes the first suite, in G Major, as "innocent." He then plays the fifth suite, in C minor with the A string tuned down scordatura to a G, which creates a darker sound world – so somber in fact that it's common fare at funerals. Yo-Yo Ma performed the suite's spare and desolate Sarabande as the names of the dead were recited at the World Trade Center to mark the first anniversary of the 9/11 attacks. Bach's heavy personal losses — 10 of his 20 children died before reaching adulthood and his first wife died while he was traveling — explain the pain expressed here, according to Vogler.

An intermission breaks up the program that then launches into the C Major suite — the third one — which Vogler calls "glorious" and "very optimistic."

Music and poetry are like two sides of the same coin. "Poetry, there's this in between the words, and with music, it's the same — in between the notes, actually, the real message happens," said Vogler, who plays a 1707 cello made by famed Cremona luthier Antonio Stradivari during Bach's time. "The whole Bach suites are about humanity, about feelings, about lows and highs."

The radio version of this story was edited by Olivia Hampton and produced by Taylor Haney, with engineering from Zac Coleman and Neil Tevault. The digital version was edited by Majd al-Waheidi.

Copyright 2024 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Olivia Hampton