By David Templeton
“Johann Sebastian Bach,” says multiple-Grammy-winning bassist and composer Edgar Meyer, “is central to each of our worldviews.” By “our,” Meyer is including cellist Yo-Yo Ma and mandolinist Chris Thile, with whom he’s recorded a number of CDs over the last several years, including the Grammy-winning Goat Rodeo Sessions with violinist Stuart Duncan.
The reason Meyer is talking about Bach is that they’ve just gone and done it again. Fast on the heels of Meyer’s massive, critically acclaimed symphonic work New Piece for Orchestra—which Meyer debuted in a March performance with the Nashville Symphony—the sometimes threesome of Meyer, Ma, and Thile have now released Bach Trios (Nonesuch Records), an assortment of 17 Bach compositions (based on his works for keyboard and viola da gamba), reimagined for bass, cello, and mandolin.
But why those three, why Bach, and why now?
“On the ‘Goat Rodeo’ tour,” replies Meyer, “we would play the third and fourth movements of the first gamba sonata each evening. And it seems that motivated Yo-Yo to propose the Bach Trios recording. Chris and I were humbled to oblige him.”
It’s a characteristically modest reply, delivered in discussion of an ambitious project. This is certainly not the first attempt to refashion Bach to meet the requirements of alternative instrumentation. But when combined with the challenging breadth of compositions chosen for this recording—including selections from The Art of the Fugue and The Well-Tempered Clavier—it’s hard to think of any other Bach trio project quite as daunting. Asked how the team came to choose these 17 compositions, Meyer allows that with a catalogue as vast as Bach’s, it was no easy task.
“Most importantly, we looked primarily at pieces that were originally in three parts,” he says, adding, “although I don’t think that we chose any that were originally for three instruments.”
According to Meyer, he presented an “overview of options” to Ma and Thile early on, and Bach scholar Christoph Wolff was brought in, as Meyer explains it, “to help make sure that we were more fact than fiction.”
After that, the three musicians sat together and read through a number of possible pieces, working to form a balanced program of music that all three of them loved.
“It was not difficult in any way,” Meyer says, “except that we could have put together six of these programs almost as easily as one.”
Meyer offers that there were not any pieces the trio felt particular urgency to include, or that they found especially difficult to adapt to their skills and instruments. “There really is not a piece that stands out from the others,” he says, “either in terms of how strongly we felt about including it, or the degree to which it challenged us. Which is to say, we feel very strongly about each piece, and they are all very challenging, in different ways.”
Any adaptation of a known piece of work—especially those as revered and cherished as works by Bach—is open to criticism for daring to veer from the great composer’s original vision. Meyer suggests that he, Thile, and Ma all instinctively understood this, and that Bach’s legacy was never in danger during the recording of Bach Trios.
“Bach is my personal favorite musician of all time,” he lets it be known, “and I feel I owe him deference like no other musician. If I can be convinced that Bach would have wanted it a certain way, then that is what I want to do. However, that is not the same as a historical argument [about how] it was done in a particular manner during his lifetime. We live in a different world with a different set of musical references, and it is probably not possible to hear music in exactly the way that it was heard in his lifetime. So we play it in a way that is true to our understanding, and try every day to broaden that understanding.”
Meyer, in addition to being an accomplished player on the double bass, piano, guitar, banjo, dobro, and violin, has proven himself adept in a variety of musical genres, from classical and jazz to bluegrass and world music. He’s collaborated with some of the greatest musicians on the globe, and has recorded and toured tirelessly. In addition, Meyer is a superb composer. He’s written a number of works for the double bass, along with many others, including a quintet—for string quartet and double bass—written for the Emerson String Quartet in 1997, and a violin concerto composed for violinist Hilary Hahn in 1999. And then, of course, there’s New Piece for Orchestra, a single-movement work that marks his first time writing for a full orchestra with no part for a soloist.
One might assume, despite his ability to compose for numerous instruments, that his favorite is the double bass. That’s not the case, he reveals.
“My favorite instrument is the violin,” he says. “My wife and son are both violinists, and it is fair to say that we have shared values. New Piece for Orchestra features the violins more than any other segment of the orchestra, and that is just good judgment.”
That said, he admits he does, indeed, enjoy writing for the bass. “I feel like I have somewhat of an inside track,” he quips.
Despite his work as a seasoned composer, Meyer says little arranging was necessary when approaching the Bach Trios project. “We primarily chose pieces that were in three parts and did not change anything,” he says. “If there was an extra note here and there, we usually gave it to Chris. Yo-Yo was occasionally a little freer than Chris and I were, changing octaves or maybe improvising a little bit, most often to add variety.”
The only exception: the E minor Prelude and Fugue—a little arranging was required because the works were in four and five parts.
“Once again, Chris took the majority of the additional voices, with Yo-Yo grabbing a few here and there, and the bass occasionally picking up a chord or two,” he says. “Also there were some virtuosic passages in single note sixteenth notes for the manuals of the organ that we had to make a few decisions about. Outside of that, it was simply a matter of part distribution. Once again, outside of a rare change of octave and maybe one low F# that was not on the mandolin, we played exactly the notes written, so there was very little arranging.”
Given his deep admiration for Bach, how would Meyer characterize the master’s music to someone who had never heard it before?
“If I were to attempt to communicate what Bach meant to me to a deaf person,” he says, “I might try several approaches. Maybe I would start with a visual image of natural beauty, and try to present the idea that Bach created sounds with a sense of wonder parallel to the natural world. Then I might talk about Bach being the central figure in Western music, incorporating more of Europe than any who came before him—and being the one musician whom the most remarkable musicians that followed him learned the most from.
“I would then mention,” he goes on, “that he wrote music that in a comprehensible way offered a precision of logic, and multiple layers of thought, that may not have been matched since. This could go on a long time. But I will stop for now by saying that Bach is so central to music that it is not easy to quantify his contributions.”
In late April, Meyer, Ma, and Thile will embark on a tour in support of Bach Trios, and—as if Johann Sebastian needed the popularity boost—one can assume that the result of the tour, and the CD, could be a new generation of serious young players as enamored by J.S. Bach, and as indebted to him, as this trio of master musicians.
But then what happens, once the tour is over? Is there any chance that these three will collaborate again?
“I’m not sure what is next,” Meyer says, “but it would be nice to hook up with Stuart again, and get to hear Yo-Yo and him create that unique blend—with a little bass and mandolin support.
“Whatever it is,” says Meyer, “I hope I am part of it.”
Bach Trios at the Greek Theatre
In an April 30 performance in Berkeley, California, Yo-Yo Ma, Edgar Meyer, and Chris Thile walk onto the stage grinning ear to ear, waving their arms in the air. The concert is put on by Cal Performances at the Greek Theatre, a stage framed with massive Roman-style columns and stacks of stone seating that meet patches of greenery up top that look down onto the stage. The venue invokes a Gladiator-style feel—I half expect Russell Crowe to follow them onstage. It’s the perfect setting to reimagine J.S. Bach and perform new music arranged for their latest album, Bach Trios.
The trio’s setup is simple—three music stands and stools clustered together in the center of the stage. They launch into Bach as promised, transfixed in the moment, relying on sheet music, but also taking time to rely on each other. The first piece begins with a muted bass while the cello and mandolin lead each other on an ambling discussion, passing the melody back and forth. Soft, purple lighting on the sky-high columns serve as an enchanting backdrop to the stage’s structure. I look around in the crowd, and many concertgoers are swaying gently with the music, eyes closed as the sound reverberates throughout the space.
After a few pieces, Ma breaks the musical spell—“Wow! It doesn’t get better than this! Ed is so excited, he wore a UC Berkeley tie today,” he says, stirring laughter from the audience. “He’s the thoughtful one in the group.”
As the concert nears a close, it becomes obvious that the trio has saved the best for last. They leap into a flurry of fugues. “For us, this piece always takes us to another level,” Ma muses. “It leaves us speechless and takes us into a different world.”