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Bach Trios

Yo-Yo Ma, Chris Thile and Edgar Meyer
Nonesuch Records Inc., 2017

A mandolin, a cello and upright bass playing some Bach treasures — what’s not to love?

Especially when it’s Chris Thile on the mandolin, that freak of a musical talent who both hears and performs music in ways mere mortals can barely fathom. Whether he’s single-handedly replacing “blue” with “new” in “bluegrass” as one-third of the Nickel Creek talent, or leading “Prairie Home Companion” to its next iteration, or performing Radiohead covers with a full symphony orchestra (saw that one in person, y’all), the consensus is clear: Chris Thile is not of this planet.

And then there’s Yo-Yo Ma, world-renowned cellist who began performing concerts at four and a half years old, the same age when I was still learning how to color inside the lines. Like Thile, Ma has been bold in stepping outside his classical focus, contributing his musical gifts to bluegrass, Latin American and minimalist circles. Watching him play (which I’ve only done on the screen) is to see a true master of his craft, to witness pure joy.

Suffice to say Edgar Meyer is not much of a household name, but you’ve probably heard him and didn’t know it. A longtime companion of Thile from his Nickel Creek days, Meyer found his way onto many a musical platform over the years. Currently he’s an adjunct associate professor of double bass at Vanderbilt University’s Blair School of Music. Now there’s a class I’d love to audit.

Individually these musicians command your attention. Together, diving into the nuances of Johann Sebastian Bach, they create a thing of beauty – and genius. If Bach excelled at anything in his post-Baroque era music (and boy, did he excel at a lot), it was the concept of counterpoint — the relationship between voices that are harmonically interdependent yet independent in rhythm and contour. As my dad, a Bach fan, would tell me, you can pull any one of the melodies out and it’s perfectly fine and dandy standing on its own.

With Thile/Ma/Meyer’s work, you really get to hear counterpoint at play — the bright mandolin sound, the lulling cello and the resonant bass. This particular combination brings out Bach’s melodies in a way that is unique and refreshing when compared to a full orchestra.

This is particularly evident on “Trio Sonata No. 6 in G Major, BMV 530: III. Allegro.” Give this a listen and try isolating each instrument and its accompanying melody. Demonstrating both the brilliance of Bach and Thile/Ma/Meyer’s interpretation is the manner in which the piece alternates between three mostly independent voices and the three acting as one voice in something that sounds and feels like harmony. Again, because it’s only three instruments and not dozens, you really get to hear the counterpoint at play.

My personal bias is showing, admittedly, but Thile’s work on the mandolin is sheer mastery. The beauty of the mandolin as accentuated by Thile is that it becomes both a melodic and percussive instrument. Thile knows just when to make the sound punch and when to make it blend in better with his string counterparts.

He and the others seem to be at their best on “Wachet auf, ruft uns die Stimme”more commonly known on this side of the pond as “Sleepers Wake.” I remember my organist at church playing this during the offertory, and how I loved the melody. Here the mandolin carries the day, ever-present and effortless, with the double bass plucking along underneath. Soon enough the cello enters the scene with that famous Bach countermelody, and for a glorious moment you’re not sure which instrument is leading the way. You’re lost, and that’s a thing of beauty.

I readily admit that I’ve not had much experience reviewing classical music. I’d love to hear what a Bach expert has to say. That said, Thile/Ma/Meyer have given new voice to a collection from what some would call the world’s greatest composer. We may not be able to delve into the nuances of Bach’s renderings, but there’s a joy in simply listening. We know a good thing when we hear it.

When STEVE LINDSLEY is not being a pastor, or sermonizing, or songwriting/giggling, or keynoting/leading music for various retreats and conferences, or blogging, or running, or playing pick-up basketball with his two sons and letting them win, or watching music competition reality TV shows with his love wife, it probably means he’s sleeping. Follow him on Twitter at @slindsley. Visit his blog.