Three of the leading virtuosos in the world met in a barn to record an album of Johann Sebastian Bach’s music, and the result came to Kansas City.
Cellist Yo-Yo Ma, bassist Edgar Meyer and mandolinist Chris Thile performed a sold-out show at the Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts on Thursday, a special engagement presented by the Harriman-Jewell Series.
The audience was diverse, intergenerational and (judging from the array of languages I overheard) also multinational, brought together by the trio’s vast and eclectic repertoire — encompassing classical, bluegrass, folk and world musics — presented with an artistic curiosity and generosity of spirit that engaged at all levels.
Why, after all they’ve done, collaboratively and separately (including individual Bach albums), would they record and tour a program of Bach’s music? For the challenge and intrinsic joy. There is no other musician in the past few centuries who so consistently married the human element and the angelic, with as deep and eclectic an output, as J.S. Bach.
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And there were human moments. After a sheet music snafu, Thile addressed the audience with endearing radio-host aplomb: “Good people of Kansas City, I’d like for you to forget that that happened.” A misstep in concert decorum, but a humanizing error handled with humor, getting a thousand people laughing, is a far better vehicle for Bach than a stilted, if flawless, performance.
It was, though, music-making of the highest caliber, a performance of intimacy and sublimity, complexity and resilience. The program was drawn for the most part straight from their album, “Bach Trios,” three-part works arranged for cello, bass and mandolin. “It’s like nothing else,” Meyer said, “to be able to play this music for you.”
They started with Trio Sonata No. 6 in G major and transitioned to the familiar and beautiful “Wachet auf, ruft uns die Stimme,” the final note transfixing. Consistently throughout the performance, though the complexity of the contrapuntal voices was impressive, it was the simpler pieces that transcended.
Often, Ma carried melodic material, while Meyer assured on the bass line and Thile provided near constant motion on rhythmic harmonies (though he took control during Prelude and Fugue No. 18 in E minor). The trio maintained excellent integration as material passed from voice to voice.
Their personalities presented the music differently, with the affable Thile smile-grimacing as the intensity of the line increased, Ma beatific, impassioned or cheery amd Meyer stoic throughout (he’s not much of a grinner). This didn’t change as an insect buzzed about them during the second set. “Everyone loves Bach,” Thile quipped, before they began Contrapunctus VIII from “The Art of the Fugue,” followed by the mirror fugue of Contrapunctus XIII.
The chorales were sublime, all the more so for their relative simplicity. Thile switched to guitar for “Erbarm dich mein, o Herre Gott,” quietly strumming accompaniment under Ma’s pensive, pleading melody.
The intricate fugues had them locked into the sheet music more than I’ve ever witnessed in their performances, when often they’ve written the music, or it’s memorized, improvised or part of a rote-learned tradition. Even so, the level of cohesion indicated an intimacy with the music that is hard-earned and total, as was elegantly and emotionally displayed in the Sonata for Viola da Gamba No. 3.
This tight focus changed in their first encore (they earned multiple standing ovations), when they shared a little of their gritty, bluesy side with a rendition of “Quarter Chicken Dark,” from the Goat Rodeo Sessions.
The trio ended back on Bach, though, with the Passepied from Keyboard Partita No. 5, a genteel finishing gesture.