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Ma, Meyer, and Thile Engage in a Thrilling Musical Discussion With Bach

May 2, 2017

Cal Performances

There was the feel of a fairy tale at Sunday's early evening Bach Trio concert at the Hearst Greek Theatre in Berkeley.

As if appearing by magic or royal decree on a balmy night that carried the sweet, earthy scent of summer’s return, renowned cellist Yo-Yo Ma, mandolin virtuoso and MacArthur Fellow Chris Thile, and the distinguished bassist Edgar Meyer strode from behind massive doric columns at the 114-year-old outdoor amphitheater. Rendering 75-minutes of mastery — theirs and that of Johann Sebastian Bach — the trio’s performance presented by Cal Performances preceded a Gala party. Proceeds from the Gala at the Greek II support Cal Performances’ education and community programs that reach nearly 40,000 people this season.

If the audience nearly filling the 8,500-seat venue lacked racial and ethnic diversity — a visual survey left the disappointing impression that people of color and African Americans in particular have yet to respond in large numbers to outreach efforts — Bach’s music stood as a model of diversity. For fun, free-association words written during the concert include sparkle, anchor, tiptoe, jolly, shadowy, circular, rustic, songlike, furious, courtly, angular, buzzy, bold, lovely, clean, showoff, surge, structure, slanted, slippery, seamless and (more than once) “The Best.”

How is it that a single composer’s output can be vigorous without being loud; emphatic but not heavy; delicate while avoiding trivial or trite; grave and solemn but stopping short of maudlin; tightly structured and yet, gloriously unbound?

The “how” of it didn’t really matter. Instead, what was important was the individuality that Ma, Meyer, and Thile brought to their interpretations. Approached by Ma with sophisticated ease and obvious pleasure, by Meyer with a familiarity and nobility that meant his playing was in no way casual, and by Thile with devilish enthusiasm that brought to mind a boy who’s just discovered a frog living under his bed and intends to keep it secret, Bach’s music unfolded gloriously. The chemistry between the musicians created an atmosphere of adventure, as if by knowing the music well, each in his personal way, they might challenge one another — and us — to hear something new.

The highlights were many. The musicians danced through show-offy trips during the opening movement and played with sustained urgency as if wishing the wave-like third section would never end in closing passages of the Viola Da Gamba Sonata No. 3 in G Minor. In the Adagio, their phrasing stretched to loss and a wistful hanging on as if to memories of loved things or people.

Other works combined breadth and brilliant brevity. The chorale prelude, Kommst du nun, Jesu, vom Hillmel herunter (Come thou, Jesus, from heaven to earth) in its two-minutes and 55 seconds demonstrated intricacy, gorgeous melodic line, and beguiling transitions as melodies begun by one instrument were finished or embellished by another. Moments after, Thile suggested the night was thrilling and asked the crowd, “Same time, same place, tomorrow?” The response was instant and affirmative.

The trio’s connectivity was convincing in Wachet auf, ruft uns die Stimme (Awake, the voice is calling us), and to a lesser extent, in selections from The Well-Tempered Clavier and The Art of the Fugue. Overlapping or consecutive lines handled with sensitivity — no one instrument outbalanced its two counterparts — meant it was always possible to delight in the mandolin’s plucky percussiveness or the way in which Ma’s upper-register playing revealed the instrument’s voicelike or violinlike qualities. Meyer was often the essential anchor, like a human heart that pulses along and keeps the entire operation running.

As promised, new things were heard, regardless of whether or not Bach’s music was a favorite friend or a blind date. And this is Bach’s appeal: he has been and always will be the people’s composer. Along with the aforementioned freewheeling descriptive terms came remembered moments: banging out Bach on Mrs. Bigelow’s piano during childhood lessons, and many performances of Balanchine’s Concerto Barocco danced to Bach’s Concerto in D-Minor for Two Violins. Like in a fairy tale, the frustrations of practicing piano instead of climbing trees and a ballet dancer’s bruised toenails washed away. The trio finished the concert with “happily ever after” encores: the chorale prelude, Erbarm dich mein, o Herre Gott (Have mercy on me, Lord God), and from the group’s 2011 album, The Goat Rodeo Sessions, the rousing, Quarter Chicken Dark.

Lou Fancher is a San Francisco Bay Area writer. Her work has been published by WIRED.com, Diablo Magazine, Oakland Tribune, Contra Costa Times, InDance, East Bay Express, Oakland Magazine, SF Weekly, and others.  She is a children's book author, designer and illustrator, with over 50 books in print. Also a choreographer, ballet master and teacher, she coaches professional ballet and contemporary dance companies in the U. S. and Canada.  Visit her website online at www.johnsonandfancher.com.

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