A mandolinist, a cellist and a double bassist walk into a barn. No, this isn’t the beginning of some terribly bad joke, but it is how Chris Thile, Edgar Meyer and Yo-Yo Ma came together to record music of J.S. Bach. Their new album Bach Trios was released earlier this month.
While a barn isn’t the typical place you’d expect to hear the music of the Baroque master, keep in mind that this wasn’t just any old barn—it was the studio-barn at James Taylor’s Berkshires residence. The instrumentalists are anything but ordinary, too. Celebrated as virtuosos in their own right, the trio have collaborated on various projects during their careers.
The last time they recorded together, the result was the 2011 chart-topping and Grammy-winning album The Goat Rodeo Sessions (in which they were also joined by Nashvillian fiddle player Stuart Duncan).
The mandolin, cello and double bass are an unlikely combination of instruments in the classical world, but a love of Bach has brought these three players together again. In a piece posted on the Nonesuch label site, Meyer gushed about the composer:
"The love of Bach is so central to the three of us that it is surprisingly difficult to explain... It can be a shared experience, with so many pieces that we all know and have played. It can be a common dialect, from which we reference all other music. It certainly is a standard of beauty and logic that inspires for a lifetime."
Bach Trios, the result of that shared respect and admiration for Johann Sebastian, is a project that has been serendipitously brewing for years.
In his teens, Thile came to Meyer for instruction, wanting to learn more about the "nuts and bolts” of the music he loved, rather than solely relying on his musical intuition. As part of their conversations, Meyer introduced Thile to Yo-Yo Ma’s Bach recordings. Now, the three have recorded a program together that includes a variety of preludes, fugues, sonatas and cantatas.
To choose just the right pieces from Bach’s massive catalog, Meyer says that they relied on instinct, as well as looking at “pieces that were conceived in three voices” adding that none of the pieces on the album were composed for three instruments. “In general the pieces are not arranged,” Meyer adds, “but are chosen in such a way that we can play them without altering any notes.”
The new energy that Thile, Ma and Meyer bring to centuries-old music is palpable. In a video of the barn sessions, Thile counts off one of Bach’s sonatas as if the trio were about to launch into a rock anthem. They juggle the counterpoint between them with ease, bringing both warmth and technical precision to their performance.
It’s a precision that only comes from perfectionism. As the three musicians come to the end of a flawless performance of the trio, Meyer chimes in. “Two or three like that,” he says, to which Thile nods in agreement: “let’s do two or three like that.” Watching them, it’s clear that they enjoy playing together immensely. Ma, who has giggled on the other side of the room, joins the dialogue. “Let’s do, like, five or ten or something like that.”
On April 26th, the Thile/Ma/Meyer trio will perform together at the Schermerhorn Symphony Center for the first time. Tickets for the event sold out before they became available to the general public. If you are serious about attending, though, a small number of VIP on-stage seating has been made available at $350 per seat.