The flying fingers of Edgar Meyer and Chris Thile
August 16, 2008
ASPEN ” Edgar Meyer’s annual string bass recital at the Aspen Music Festival is always among the most highly anticipated events of the year. He can make the bass sing like a cello or spew out notes as fast as a violin, then suddenly descend to the instrument’s depths for an exclamation point. Other bass players just blink in wonder. Wednesday at Harris Hall he shared the stage with Chris Thile, a mandolin player with similarly amazing chops.
An Edgar Meyer recital does not resemble anything else you might see at the festival. You don’t often see a bass in the spotlight for the entire evening, especially with no piano accompanying. And then there are the musicians he chooses to play with. In the past, we have heard him with Bela Fleck, who specializes in electric banjo, and last year, in one of the most electrifying evenings of music-making this festival has seen, the jazz bassist Christian McBride.
And of course, there’s the music. He may throw in a J.S. Bach unaccompanied cello sonata, which can sound extraordinary on his bass, and in his concert with Thile they played four Bach pieces. But Meyer’s own music has its roots in bluegrass and, to a lesser extent, jazz. So what makes all this appropriate for a festival primarily devoted to classical music? Sheer virtuosity, for one thing, but mostly it’s how quiet the music is. The bass is actually one of the least penetrating instruments in the orchestra, partly because its sound is so low and it diffuses easily. The mandolin is a good match, sonically. It may live two or three octaves higher, but it carries about as softly as the bass.
In a venue the size of 500-seat Harris Hall, a hush falls almost immediately as the delicate sounds of the bass and mandolin draw in the listeners. You can’t help but pay close attention. There were several incandescent moments over the course of the concert’s two hours and 10 minutes when the two musicians’ technical skill and musical inventiveness combined to produce something unique. The last piece on the program, for example, “Fence Post in the Front Yard,” contains some sequences of notes, played in octaves, that fly by so fast the musicians’ hands were a blur. And yet, the music was so perfectly articulated that it sounded like a single instrument. (The mando-bass?)
The Bach pieces, three of which Meyer introduced as a “medley,” provided a touchstone for classical listeners, who had to be impressed with the purity and freshness of the playing. One can imagine Bach, who often recycled his own music for instruments other than ones he originally wrote it for, nodding his head appreciatively as they played.
At least seven of the 15 pieces they played were from a CD Meyer and Thile recorded for release on Nonesuch in September. They co-wrote most of the music, which brims with humor. “This Is the Pig” sounds like a jazz strut, and in this concert Thile’s improvised solo stretched the boundaries of what a mandolin can do. “The Farmer and the Duck” starts off in an easy bluegrass groove, then takes off like a jet, alternating the sections several times. “G-22” is straightahead bluegrass but “Cassandra’s Waltz” has more musical depth. It starts off with quiet broken arpeggios on the mandolin, like raindrops against a wistful tune that Meyer articulates on high harmonics. The music develops over the piece’s five or six minutes before receding to the opening tenderness.
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But the most interesting music for me were several movements from Meyer’s Concert Duo for Violin and Bass, with Thile taking the violin part. One of the pieces found the two playing the same, jagged melodic line in something reminiscent of Chick Corea’s music. Another one, in a gentle 3/4, drew an astonishing jazz-inflected solo from Thile.
One minor cavil. A certain sameness set in as one bluegrass-inflected tune followed another, some of them notable only for the technical facility of the players and what they might create in their improvisations. Maybe that’s why the concert last year with McBride was so memorable. In that one, two giants of their respective musical styles found glorious common ground. Because Meyer and Thile share such similar backgrounds, that extra element was missing this year.
Over at the Wheeler Opera House, the Aspen Opera Theater Center concluded its season with a lively performance of Massenet’s “Cendrillon.” Director Edward Berkeley re-set the very French version of the Cinderella story into a Bollywood fantasyland. Not only did it work, but it opened the visual palette for colorful costumes, including some gorgeous saris. And Massenet’s music, while perhaps not as memorable as, say, his Manon or Thaïs, is tuneful, beautifully crafted and witty. Heard Thursday, the cast delivered a good performance all around, generally well sung and enthusiastically acted. Standouts included mezzo-soprano Margaret Gawrysiak as a very funny domineering stepmother, and baritone Nimrod Weisbrod as Cinderella’s father, a nervous mass of facial and body tics. Both sang splendidly, as did soprano Kirsten Allegri in the title role. Her counterpart, tenor Benjamin Hilgert, looked fine as the handsome prince but sounded seriously underpowered. Soprano Amy Buckley, stepping in as the Fairy, had a few nice moments of coloratura. The various choruses and ensembles proved to be a strength.
Joseph Mechavich, stepping in for an injured Patrick Summers, conducted idiomatically.
The final performance is tonight.