Arts & Events

MUSIC REVIEW: Yo-Yo Ma, Edgar Meyer, and Chris Thile Play Bach at the Greek Theatre

Reviewed by James Roy MacBean
Sunday May 07, 2017 - 02:43:00 PM

Cellist Yo-Yo Ma has stated publically that he grew tired of playing the same old classical repertoire of music for the cello, so he decided to branch out into other areas of music. In his many crossover recordings he has done so. Sometimes, as in his recordings and concerts with the Silk Road Ensemble, the results are good. At other times, the results are, well, a bit hokey. For his concert at Berkeley’s Greek Theatre on Sunday evening, April 30, Yo-Yo Ma joined forces with Chris Thile on mandolin and Edgar Meyer on bass to perform new and unusual scorings of music by Johann Sebastian Bach. Chris Thile, a mandolin virtuoso who plays bluegrass and jazz as well as classical music, recently took over from Garrison Keillor as host of A Prairie Home Companion. Edgar Meyer is both a virtuoso bassist and a composer.  

For the concert at the Greek Theatre no program was given beforehand, it being noted that the program would be announced from the stage. However, when the three musicians came onstage, they simply began playing without announcing what they would play, leaving the audience in the dark. This seemed negligent at best, perhaps even arrogant. Indeed, Yo-Yo Ma, Edgar Meyer and Chris Thile played four pieces before any acknowledgment was offered regarding what they had played; and even that announcement, by Chris Thile, was offhand and incomplete. Suffice it to say that Chris Thile’s mandolin generally took the melodic line, occasionally sharing it with Yo-Yo Ma’s cello, while Edgar Meyer’s bass provided the continuo. The slightly tinny sound of the amped mandolin took some getting used to, especially in works by Bach that we are already quite familiar with from hearing them played with the instruments they were written for. However, a highlight came with Bach’s Organ Fantasy and Fugue, BWV 548, transcribed for mandolin, cello, and bass. This work was followed by a Prelude and Fugue, which in turn was followed by yet another fugue, this one a Prelude and Fugue from The Well-Tempered Clavier.  

Next came a transcription of Bach’s cantata Ich ruf’ zu dir, Herr Jesu Christ (I Call on You, Lord Jesus Christ), with a vocal line played by cello to a bass continuo. Following this came three works from Bach’s Art of the Fugue, numbers 13, 14 and 8. The latter was a highlight of the evening. Another cantata was offered, Kommst du nun, Jesu, featuring jaunty arpeggios from Chris Thile on mandolin. Then came a Chorale and Prelude to close out the program. As encores, the group first offered a transcription of Bach’s cantata Er barm dich mein, o Herr Gott, with Chris Thile switching from mandolin to guitar. For a second and final encore the group launched into something definitely not by Bach. Rather, it was a contemporary piece featuring wild riffs from Chris Thile’s mandolin and loud screeches from Yo-Yo ma’s cello. Oh well, with three musical chameleons onstage, I suppose there had to be at least one crossover piece. I left in the middle of the final encore.