Instrumental Mayhem In The Name Of Bach: Ma-Thile-Meyer

ByQuyen Anne

Sep 10, 2023

What would Johann Sebastian Bach make of a goat rodeo?

There can be little doubt that the greatest composer ever would have been unfazed hearing his music played by a trio of cello, mandolin and bass, as Yo-Yo Ma, Chris Thile and Edgar Meyer did at Walt Disney Concert Hall on Wednesday night. Five years ago the three took part in what became known as “The Goat Rodeo Sessions,” unlikely musicians on unlikely instruments in concerts and on bestselling recordings that were part blues, part bluegrass and a smidgen of Bach. Although sometimes slang for hapless chaos, for everything that can go wrong going wrong, a goat rodeo can also imply that out of pandemonium can come something new.

Bach knew the mandolin, cello and bass in their earlier incarnations. He never wrote for such a trio, but had virtuosos like these been among his beer-drinking buddies in Leipzig, he undoubtedly would have come up with some entertainment for them.

The one thing Bach might have wondered about, though, is why the Ma-Thile-Meyer trio was so respectful. Composers in Bach’s Baroque day thought nothing of adapting their music and other people’s music for different instruments. They did so by freely rewriting, as much if not more so than what is common in what pop music calls covers.

The Goat Rodeo Sessions (Bonus & Live Tracks)". Album of Yo-Yo Ma, Stuart Duncan, Edgar Meyer & Chris Thile buy or stream. | HIGHRESAUDIO

So how about Gloria Cheng playing a Brahms piano transcription of Bach’s D-minor Chaconne for violin on a harpsichord, as she did to end her Tuesdays@Monk Space recital the day before? Brahms’ keyboard style, a century after the Baroque, would surely have intrigued Bach, as would the new-fangled piano. Brahms’ transcription is for left hand alone to take advantage of the resonances of the lower notes on the piano, a sound that would have been arresting to Bach’s ear.

The one thing, here, to mystify Bach was the harpsichord itself. Cheng’s copy of a 1729 double manual harpsichord would be familiar enough. But why use it for a piano piece?

In Bach’s time and up until the early 20th century, composers jumped on the latest technological bandwagons, whatever that might be. Invent a clarinet and Mozart won’t be able to get enough of it. Once the piano had become the keyboard of choice in the 19th century, the fashion became to turn old harpsichords into furniture.

That interest in new instruments or the radical evolution of older ones suddenly stopped in the early 20th century. Orchestras became fossilized, with modern instruments — be they saxophones or synthesizers — as occasional add-ons, not part of the permanent ensemble. Changes in standard instruments were restricted to minor refinements.

Invention didn’t cease, but in the 1950s new instruments, and particularly electronic ones, were the purview of the avant-garde and of commercial music. At the same time, an early music movement was born with the intent of returning old music to old instruments and playing them as historians imagined they had once been played, something known as historically informed practice, or HIP.

What we now have, with the likes of musical goat wranglers at Disney and with Cheng’s harpsichord recital mixing old and new music, is a kind of HIP replacement.

With HIP replacement, Cheng’s harpsichord could now offer an evening of novelty. She began with Lou Harrison’s Six Sonatas for Cembalo, written in 1943, which use the harpsichord like a modern West Coast percussion instrument, but which also allude to Baroque practices, particularly in tuning. In honor of the centenary of Harrison’s birth on May 14, Cheng chose one of his favorite old tunings, the Werkmeister III temperament, which is close to the equal temperament that Bach eventually adapted, but not quite the same, giving some intervals an exotic microtonal tinge.

A Bach violin chaconne felt, not surprisingly, fresh. Brahms’ piano transcription was returned to a Bachian harpsichord but tuned a little differently, so that it sounds closer to a Baroque violin yet also with a very distant flavor of Lou Harrison’s California. Cheng played not with the left hand but both hands to better control harpsichord resonance felt.

It also helped that Bach came after various examples of early and new harpsichord music. This included exploring a 1650 suite by Louis Couperin, in which the musician has the fancy of supplying rhythm, and Sally Mosher’s 2003 “Out of the Silence” that played off the same principal suitability for modern music.

Many modern composers note the return to the harpsichord, especially when a pianist like Cheng, who is well known for premiering much new music, takes an interest in the early instrument. Elsewhere on her program were recent pieces by Veronika Krausas, Carolyn Yarnell and Karen Tanaka, each exploring hidden resonance resources in the instrument, as well as György Ligeti’s 1978 flamboyantly Minimalist “Hungarian Rock.”

Am I being presumptuous to think that that response of Bach — sitting on a folding chair in Koreatown’s Monk Space and perhaps slightly piqued that wine rather than beer was served — to dazzling recital could have been: “I wish I’d thought of that”?

I’m not so sure Bach would have had the same thought about the Ma-Thile-Meyer trio, for the simple reason that he already had thought of most of what they did. They found ways to make the combination of instruments work, the bass often plucking harmonies, the cello playing singing lines and the mandolin a harpsichord stand-in, all the while honoring every gesture Bach asked for.

They played a program similar to that on their new Bach trio recording, beginning with a straightforward transcription of an organ trio and ending with a straightforward transcription of a viola da gamba sonata that Ma once recorded on the cello with harpsichord accompaniment. They went, more often than not, for refined lyricism, and when melody reigned, all three became absorbed in conveying exquisite beauty. They found clever but still dutiful solutions for handling fugues from “The Well Tempered Clavier” and “The Art of the Fugue.”

But when they played a rocking “Goat Rodeo Sessions” encore, “Quarter Chicken Dark,” they cut loose. My second presumptuous guess is that’s what would have excited Bach, as it did everyone else in the sold-out hall. HIP replacement, yes, but not simply for the sake of restoration hardware.


“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.”


Photo by Danny Clinch

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.

Chris Thile, Edgar Meyer, and Yo-Yo Ma

Photo by Agency Moanalani Jeffrey

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.

Greek Theatre

Photo by Agency Moanalani Jeffrey

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.”

Yo-Yo Ma, Edgar Meyer, and Chris Thile

Photo by Agency Moanalani Jeffrey

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.”

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