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Strings Big and Little, Two by Two


Celebrity Series of Boston’s unforgettable evening at Sanders Theater last night featured two often-overlooked instruments, double bass and mandolin, played for a devoted audience by two funloving virtuosi, Edgar Meyer and Chris Thile.

Readers of BMInt will surely recognize them. In addition to his manifold performances on double bass, Edgar Meyer has composed a violin concerto and a double concerto for bass and cello (which I reviewed in these pages here ). Chris Thile likewise composes in addition to playing mandolin; readers may recall last year’s Bach-tober Fest in Sanders, also under the aegis of the Celebrity Series (reviewed here). Both musicians are remarkably skilled and versatile and shift seamlessly across musical genres and idioms. The result was a show that was part classical concert (the stage, seated audience, applause between numbers), part jazz club riff (attentive listeners but in a more relaxed atmosphere, minus the smoky ambiance, food, and drink), part rock concert (the sound system; set list taped to the stage floor). What it never was, though, was boring or predictable. This concert demonstrated (as Meyer and Thile have both done previously) a future for live music outside our traditional pigeon-holes. The music ranged from Bach to bluegrass (“newgrass,” as this strain is sometimes called) to jazz to improvisation. Regardless of genre, Meyer and Thile were deeply attuned to each other’s playing, emphasizing phrases, lines, and shapes with clarity and empathy, and always bringing the music to life. Their dynamism reflects 11 years together, as well as their impressive individual talents, which extended to Meyer’s playing piano and Thile guitar on “I’ll Remember for You” and “Look What I Found.”

The program featured a number of works the duo have recorded. Opening with “Why Only One?,” “Farmer and Duck,” “Monkey, Actually,” Bach’s “Tempo di Gavotta” from Partita 6 in E minor, and then a canon from Art of Fugue, this selection set the tenor for the whole concert. All selections were played with elasticity between the parts, with consideration and keen attention to detail, and with seeming ease despite the technical challenges. Both instruments shared the melody and no matter how hairy the part the music was never lost in all the notes. After 40-odd minutes, Meyer and Thile took a breather and talked to the audience, telling anecdotes about bluegrass greats and amusing details about the songs. “FRB” is a song for Ray Brown, and is inspired by his jamming to Sonny Rollins’s “Doxy” but not wanting to pay him royalties, so he wrote his own song over the same sequence of chord changes; Meyer and Thile did likewise. “Ham and Cheese” is a song that can’t settle on a key signature, so like that sandwich is a combo. These judicious anecdotes added to the fun of the event.

Bassist Edgar Meyer and mandolinist Chris Thile  (Robert Torres photo)
Mandolinist Chris Thile and bassist Edgar Meyer (Robert Torres photo)

The second half continued the blend of music and anecdote, notably in the piece “To Be Determined” (a freeform improvisation that changes each time); after playing, they invite the audience to name it (this one became “Wicked Pissah”). Both performers have a great sense of timing, an ease speaking to audiences, and a wry sensibility; their words from the stage were a continuation of the music, another way of appreciating the sounds they were creating and sharing with us all. They take joy in their work; there was always a sense of whimsy about the proceedings as musical jokes abounded and citations from earlier compositions leapt out at random moments to tickle the listener’s ear. The dominant note was pleasure—be it in “Friday” or “Tuesday,” “Tarnation” or Bach’s 13th prelude from the Well-Tempered Clavier II. Even the encore, the first movement from Meyer’s Concert Duo for Violin and Bass, focused on the sheer pleasure of playing an instrument well.

The last title on the program was “It’s Dark in Here.” But it really was not. The feast of music created buoyancy among the listeners, and it was quite bright in Sanders Theater. Let us hope the light holds until Meyer & Thile return, presumably as part of next season’s Celebrity Series calendar (they seem to be an annual fixture) if not sooner. In the meantime, we have their albums Meyer & Thile and Bass & Mandolin to tide us over.

Cashman Kerr Prince, trained in Classics and Comparative Literature, is now a Visiting Scholar in the Department of Classical Studies at Wellesley College.  He is also a cellist of some accomplishment, currently playing with the Brookline Symphony Orchestra.

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