More than a dozen WGBH departments rallied in the days leading up to the Sunday of Memorial Day weekend to choreograph and produce a live, socially distanced, 2½-hour solo performance of the complete Bach Cello Suites by celebrated cellist Yo-Yo Ma. It was streamed worldwide on YouTube, broadcast locally on 99.5 WCRB Classical Radio Boston and on WGBH 2, and aired on more than 150 radio stations across the U.S.

Building on almost two months’ preparation, the event went off “without a hitch,” according to Anthony Rudel, WCRB station manager and executive producer of the event.

Listeners and viewers throughout the region and all over the world joined the broadcast online, while PRX distributed it to radio stations across the country. The event, conceived by Ma to memorialize those lost to the global coronavirus pandemic and to everyone whose life has changed because of it, as well as to honor communities’ resilience, drew 40,000 viewers on Yo-Yo Ma’s YouTube channel alone and rave social media reviews from around the world. (According to @afarcrymusic on Twitter, the performance was “overflowing with life, humor and empathy.")

It was a herculean effort that involved teams across WGBH, including WCRB, Engineering, Production Group, Human Resources, Local TV, Legal, PRX, Marketing and Communications, Creative, IT, Social Media, Digital, Building Services and Security.

The performance came in the midst of the now-postponed final leg of Ma’s Bach Project, a tour of the complete cello suites to 36 communities on six continents. Maestro Ma wanted to reach out to the world, and looked to WGBH to help him do that, says Rudel, who has known Ma since they were children in New York.

“Yo-Yo knew WGBH could do this and execute with a minimum of fuss,” says Rudel.

“We have the Fraser Performance Studio, a radio antenna and a television antenna,” says WGBH’s Antonio Oliart, sound engineer for the performance (and a recent Grammy Award winner). “We are set up perfectly for events like this.”

The preparations were an epic undertaking, involving flow charts to sequence events, equipment set-up and numerous sessions of deep cleaning; and choreography to make sure people came in and out of the studio without ever having more than two people in any room — and then always masked and more than six-feet apart.

“This one was exponentially more complicated in detail than what we usually do for live performances because of the safety issue,” says Brian McCreath, WCRB director of production. “At every turn, we made decisions based on safety and health.”

Watch McCreath’s behind-the-scenes tour of WGBH on the day of the performance:

On the Monday before the event, the lighting was set in Fraser. Tuesday, the focus was on audio, as Oliart set up his array of microphones, making sure that they wouldn’t block any camera shot. On Wednesday came the cameras (four robotic devices), and on Friday the final engineering check. Another deep clean happened on Saturday, and the performance rolled out the next day.

The day of the performance involved just nine people (plus the usual building security) at WGBH's Brighton headquarters: television had a team of four (audio, lights, camera and director); three for radio; the production manager; Yo-Yo Ma (who arrived with his 300-year-old Stradivarius named Petunia strapped to his back in a hard case), and his manager.

“Yo-Yo’s team is amazing — they are great to work with, collaborative, and they are absolutely the height of professional,” says Rudel.

The performer himself is extraordinary, says Oliart. “Yo-Yo makes sure you are comfortable. He is so humble, and he treats you like a friend.”

Sitting alone in the dimly lit studio on a spare black chair, Ma played the six suites from memory. He didn’t even stop to tune his cello.

robotic cameras.jpeg
The studio was set up with robotic cameras operated from a nearby control center to limit the number of people in the room at any given time.

The television crew operated four robotic studio cameras remotely.

“The pan, tilt, focus and zoom functions are operated in a room we call 'video village,'” says Terry Quinn, senior operations manager.

These cameras are often used for local shows such as Greater Boston, High School Quiz Show and Basic Black.

While those who missed the live performance might want the opportunity to listen in, that runs counter to Ma’s essential goal, says McCreath.

“Yo-Yo Ma has a philosophy about this music happening at the same time in the same place for everybody at exactly the moment,” he says. “It's antithetical to how he thinks about it that someone would sit down with it a few hours later.”

As Ma said years before the pandemic, “Culture can do everything to dispel fear… fear makes us smaller; culture makes us larger.” In prescient reflections on the transformative power of live music, Ma concluded in 2018, “Together we are able to deal with intractable challenges. This music is the gift to start these conversations.”