Chris Thile, Yo-Yo Ma, Edgar Meyer bring joy to Bach at the Greek Theatre

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Berkeley’s Hearst Greek Theatre doesn’t have a roof, but the mandolin, cello and bass trio of Chris Thile, Yo-Yo Ma and Edgar Meyer managed to blow it off nonetheless, a feat made all the more more impressive by their choice of Bach arrangements as the evening’s fare.

No disrespect to the great master, of course, but the German composer’s spritely collection of sonatas and fugues doesn’t generally elicit whoops and hollers from audiences, standing ovations between selections and audible gasps of astonishment following bated breaths. Thile, Ma and Meyer are widely recognized as being among the best in the world at their respective crafts, but together on the same stage on Sunday evening, under the umbrella of Bach’s highly technical works, each had the opportunity to demonstrate the veracity of those claims.

Perhaps most astonishing to see in action was Thile, who in several of his other projects utilizes the mandolin for a more bluegrass-oriented, chordally dominant percussive sound. At this performance, part of Cal Performances’ Gala at the Greek II, he effortlessly filled the amphitheatre with astonishingly complex, extended runs that in some ways felt out of the realm of what the mandolin was ever designed to produce. His presence on stage was infectious — he rocked back and forth on his heels and even adopted power stances — when was the last time you saw a musician power-stance their way through Bach? Meanwhile, the exquisite tone of Ma’s $2.5 million cello — which he played with emotive passion — and Meyer’s anchoring bass all combined to create a soundscape that quite literally dropped jaws.

In a certain sense, however, the pure technicality of the performance wasn’t even the most enjoyable aspect of it. Between songs, Ma, Thile and Meyer shared the microphone to joke jovially with the audience. All three musicians exuded an easygoing, welcoming stage presence that filled the audience with a sense of inclusivity. Thile in particular seemed comfortable behind the mic, bringing to this performance the sarcastic, witty banter he employs as host of “A Prairie Home Companion” and as lead singer of the Punch Brothers.

That audience interaction was key, because it transformed the performance from a straight-backed, symphony-hall affair into something more akin to a rock show — which seemed to be the musicians’ intent. The air was distinctly casual, with Thile even calling out a section of the theater that seemed to appreciate fugues more than the rest as “the visiting team section.” It warranted constant reminder that this was, in fact, still a performance of Bach — few musicians have the requisite blend of charisma and skill to, in 75 short minutes, make classical music seem so cool.

They knew it, too. As each song concluded and the crowd erupted into applause, the three would exchange a glance, occasionally an unheard word or two, and then giggle amongst themselves, privy to some enlightened joke we mere mortals couldn’t hope to comprehend. The smiles painting their faces as they played were all the notice the audience needed to understand how wholeheartedly Thile, Ma and Meyer were playing not as a job, but as a simple expression of the love the three share for performing together.

With their grasp of Bach’s catalog unambiguously and emphatically proven, the three musicians treated the audience to an encore presentation of something entirely un-Bachlike. “Quarter Chicken Dark” is a song from The Goat Rodeo Sessions, another Ma, Meyer and Thile collaboration (which also featured Stuart Duncan on violin). A jazzy, groovy tune with heavy bowed flourishes from Ma and Meyer as well as percussive hits from Thile, “Quarter Chicken Dark” not only infectiously incited the crowd into rhythmic motion, but provided a stark stylistic contrast to the light airiness and even meter of the preceding pieces.

It was a closing that reminded everyone present of the ease with which these three musicians so often jump genre — or perhaps are even transcendent to genre entirely — in their deep understanding of the way music is constructed and performed.

Imad Pasha is the arts & entertainment editor. Contact him at [email protected].