Yo-Yo Ma quartet concert is cross-genre controlled chaos

GoatRodeo_courtesy-Jeremy-Sowart
Jeremy Sowart/Courtesy

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Crowds seated in chairs, music free of audience participation and applause limited to breaks between songs are not typical sights or sounds at Berkeley’s Hearst Greek Theatre. On Aug. 24, Cal Performances brought a new kind of show to the venue — “The Goat Rodeo Sessions,” a collaborative project featuring four Grammy award-winning string artists fusing bluegrass and chamber music.

The group combines the talents of world-renowned cellist Yo-Yo Ma, mandolinist Chris Thile, fiddler Stuart Duncan and bassist Edgar Meyer, alongside the powerful vocals of Aoife O’Donovan. This seemingly disparate combination of string instruments led to the album’s name, The Goat Rodeo Sessions.

“Through extensive Urban Dictionary-ing,” Thile said, the band discovered a “goat rodeo” to mean a “situation so fraught with difficulties … that basically everything has to go right for everyone not to die.”  While musicians without the same expertise might have created disaster, The Goat Rodeo Sessions revealed itself as a breathtaking melody of instrumentals that ranged from plucky riffs on the mandolin to powerful cello interludes.

The quartet played all 13 tracks from their album, including their two bonus tracks featuring O’Donovan. They focused on the importance of each name, describing both the difficulty to title each work as well as the story that surrounds each title. The names of instrumental compositions are typically derived from the meter or key in which they are composed. However, with The Goat Rodeo Sessions, each title has a certain story behind it. In particular, the group explains the significance of the titles of “13:8,” “Franz and the Eagle” and “Where’s My Bow?” “13:8” is actually not named for its meter. Instead, it refers to Hebrews 13:8, “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever.” The band snickered at the odd inspiration behind the name — a story of a pilot who repeatedly recited Hebrews 13:8 to the stewardess who delivered his daily meals.

“Franz and the Eagle,” in which Meyer moved from the bass and took a seat at the piano, refers to the nicknames of Duncan (Franz) and Ma (Eagle). In “Where’s My Bow?,” Thile changed instruments from a mandolin to the violin and completed the show with unbound energy. Ma told the audience to not “let him get away with lowering (the audience’s) expectations” as he moved away from his area of expertise. However, the warning was unnecessary. Thile proved to be a master of both instruments. At the conclusion of this arrangement, the group held up their bows, chuckling among themselves, always confident and very much at ease.

Throughout their concert, the group proved that they were in actuality not involved in a “goat rodeo” session. The diversity of their talents and the sounds of the instruments came together to create a unique hybrid performed in effortless harmony. Although feedback from the audience was more prescribed than at other concerts at the Greek Theatre, the collaboration brought a sense of vitality and musical innovation to the theater.