One naturally thinks of “crossover” as going from one bank to another—from classical to jazz or pop or bluegrass or some such—but it’s often charming and edifying when it goes the other way. Sting’s performances of Dowland songs were enlightening, as was jazzman Keith Jarrett’s impressive rendition of the Shostakovich Preludes and Fugues, op. 87. And some artists, like Wynton Marsalis, never felt compelled to choose among genres as their principal expressive mode. In that spirit, the performance of J.S. Bach works on Friday night at Symphony Hall by cellist Yo-Yo Ma, bassist Edgar Meyer and mandolinist Chris Thile (he lately of Prairie Home Companion fame) under the auspices of Celebrity Series, was a compendium of all three models: Ma in home territory, Meyer a multi-modalist, and Thile reaching across the aisle, as it were (though he has recorded Bach before). Bach, it would seem, is the glue that binds all musicians together.
The concert—sold out, of course—was also something one doesn’t see much of in the world of classical music, a genuine album tour, since almost all of what they played came from their recent release titled, as was the live performance, “The Bach Trios.” This is a bit of a misnomer but also literally true, since on the one hand only one work on the program was an actual trio sonata, but on the other they were a trio and they played Bach. We’re not sure who did the arranging, but we suspect Meyer, who is known as a composer, may have had the longest oar. Owing no doubt to the size of the hall and the projection problems of the mandolin, the players were miked. Another nod in the direction of pop etc. performance practice was not to print the program but to have the players identify the works from the stage. This is OK, though time-consuming, when done in advance, but the first time they spoke was after the fourth item they played, which leaves a classical audience a bit in a quandary about when to applaud (obviously, as a consequence there was applause after everything, which while undoubtedly gratifying to musicians, it should be noted, also expands the time taken by the slightly undersized playlist).
It’s a little difficult to come up with an appropriate plan for describing the performances, as there were so many individual works (the album contains 17 tracks comprising 11 to 13 pieces, depending on whether you separate preludes from fugues and the two parts of one number. They began with the Trio Sonata #6 in G BWV 530, originally for organ (give Bach credit for whimsicality in titling), which featured brisk but dynamically challenged outer movements and a delicate, filigreed lyricism in the central slow one, as well as what struck us, particularly in the finale, as authentic 18th-century ill-tempered intonation. This might be attributable to how high up on the cello Ma’s part was written (perhaps in order to equalize dynamics with the mandolin), but it seems implausible that an artist of Ma’s caliber would ever fail to play exactly the pitch he intended.
The ensemble’s work did can be divided into three categories: the substantial multi-movement works like the Trio Sonata and the Sonata for Viola da Gamba (No. 3 in G minor BWV 1029) that closed the second half; contrapuntal efforts taken from The Well-Tempered Clavier, The Art of Fugue, and one from the BWV 531-552 range; and chorale prelude settings from several of the cantatas. Each of these composition types highlighted different technical and expressive efforts from the performers, and the result was a highly satisfying mix. The only real warhorse among them was Wachet auf, ruft uns die Stimme, from BWV 645, whose setting achieved a lovely balance between the gentle pulsation of Thile’s counter-melody with Ma’s serenity in the chorale tune. The first half of the program ended with another of these settings, Ich ruf zu dir, Herr Jesu Christ, from BWV 639 (Ma’s translation of the title left out the last two words, a bit of eyeball-rolling PC prissiness), in which Thile switched instruments to what we think is a mandola, an alto mandolin with a plummier sonority, the better to enhance the soulful spirituality of Ma’s cello line.
While in the trio sonata and the chorales Meyer’s mostly provided a gentle pulse and a sturdy continuo, whether in bowed or pizzicato passages, in the contrapuntal pieces he demonstrated a feverish virtuosity that seemed to explode out of nowhere. This was true mostly in the fugues, of course, but his part was far more independent in the preludes as well, demonstrated in the first half of the program by the Prelude and Fugue in E minor, BWV 548, the Prelude No. 19 in A from Book 1 of the Well-Tempered Clavier, followed by the Fugue No. 20 in A minor from WTC Book 2. In most of the fugal settings the trio carefully gauged their dynamics through the fierce passagework (special note of Thile’s brilliant playing, including perfectly even trills and turns) until climaxing just at the point where the textures thickened. The Prelude 19 showed a dancing lilt, while Fugue 20 was rugged and fleet at the same time.
The second half started with a chorale, Kommst du nun, Jesu, vom Himmel herunter, BWV 650, with delicious, light-footed runs on the mandolin. There followed one example missing from the album, Contrapunctus VIII from Art of the Fugue, which started a bit diffidently but then followed the general schema for the other contrapuntal presentations. More from AoF then, the Contrapunctus XIII, which is one of those tours de force in which the fugue is presented both right-side-up and then upside-down, and in which the trio underscored the playfulness of Bach’s prodigious imagination while subtly varying the shading of the lines.
The final chorale witnessed an interesting change in tone. In Erbarme dich mein, Herre Gott, Thile, now on guitar, and Meyer in pizzicato, strummed static chords against the rich cello line, imparting a more contemporary song-like feeling. Ma was more forthright dynamically, with a greater use of vibrato, the whole thing offering a bouquet to Stokowski’s emotionally forthright Bach arrangements. The surprise ending came down on the dominant, in a kind of consonant suspension.
The main program ended with the gamba sonata mentioned above, which contains a lot of music that sounds vaguely familiar, some licks being quite similar to bits from the Brandenburg concertos. While this was undoubtedly Ma’s show, the others were not to be overshadowed, and the slow movement featured a lovely duet between cello and mandolin. The finale—which sounded much better than its corresponding track on the recording—was a bustling jolly onrush with major dollops of rich Romanticism and a forceful conclusion.
The first encore threw a curve ball from the Goat Rodeo Sessions album made by these artists with violinist Stuart Duncan, a jazzy, bluesy, bluegrassy track called Quarter Chicken Dark, in which the lines sometimes sounded as if in separate keys. The second was the only track from the Bach album not on the main program, the passepied movement from the (keyboard) Partita No. 5 in G, BWV 829.
Vance R. Koven studied music at Queens College and New England Conservatory, and law at Harvard. A composer and practicing attorney, he was for many years the chairman of Dinosaur Annex Music Ensemble.