Concert review: Yo-Yo Ma leads 'Goat Rodeo Show' at Tanglewood

Yo-Yo Ma

By Clifton Noble Jr.

LENOX – Cellist Yo-Yo Ma wears many musical hats.

On Thursday evening at Tanglewood’s packed Koussevitzky Music Shed, he wore his bluegrass-roots-jazz hat, performing “The Goat Rodeo Show” with string-playing co-conspirators Stuart Duncan, fiddle (and banjo); Edgar Meyer, bass (and piano), and Chris Thile, mandolin (and fiddle and guitar and vocals), and vocalist Aoife O’Donovan.

The provocative title of the show is taken from the group’s 2011 Grammy-winning album “The Goat Rodeo Sessions.” The phrase Goat Rodeo, according to the Urban Dictionary, “…is about the most polite term used by aviation people (and others in higher risk situations) to describe a scenario that requires about 100 things to go right at once if you intend to walk away from it.”

Judging by the audience response, at least 100 things went quite well, and they walked away more than satisfied with their experience.

Any time Yo-Yo Ma gets together with some musical friends to try something out, it pays off and magic happens – think “Silk Road Project.” This quartet of instrumentalists packs about as much eclectic virtuosity into one room as you are likely to encounter.

Thile, the youngster and most mobile of the group, brought 15 years of experience in Nickel Creek and recent work with Punch Brothers to the table along with some of the fastest, tastiest fingers in the business and a naggingly compelling airy vocal that partnered naturally with the similarly evanescent keen of Aoife O’Donovan, on the songs “No One But You,” “Here and Heaven,” and the captivating Bob Dylan ballad “Farewell, Angelina.”

To all appearances, bassist Meyer is a major creative and arranging force in the group. Ma referred to Meyer crafting parts for him in the wee hours of the morning and and Meyer’s command of the fingerboard extended from low growls on the E-string (sometimes tuned as low as C) to nimble flights of fancy at the ends of his long arms, and he added pearly piano textures to “Franz and the Eagle,” and “No One But You.”

Along with Ma and Thile, Meyer absolutely tore up the final Allegro from J.S. Bach’s first Viola da gamba sonata in B minor. The brilliant, ebullient Bach (the trio played the opening Adagio as well) was without a doubt the highlight of the concert. Audience response was thunderous, and the musical content of the Baroque masterpiece, while no less technically demanding or harmonically complex than the creations of the Goat Rodeo-sters, was built with a formal thoroughness and far-sight that their more improvisatory essays lacked.

Building pieces on riffs, grooves, and Philip Glass-ish cycles (Where’s My Bow?) even with extreme tempo and texture alternations to give the ear a rest from virtuosity, produces one kind of piece, and much of the Goat Rodeo Sessions material, spectacular as it is, reveals exactly that. Because the four musicians involved are at the top of the game, their performance holds the listener’s interest, but after 90 minutes, we begin to know what to expect, even at the height of the players’ inventive power.

Thile’s and Meyer’s improvised soloing enhanced the humanity of the performance, and added to the “wow” factor. Ma laid gorgeous lyrical long lines into the textures, and occasionally dug into some athletic rhythmic grooves to support his compatriots’ solo flights.

In addition to the CD material, the quartet laid meatily into a couple of fiery fiddle tunes, sort of like an acoustic version of Steve Morse’s Dixie Dregs.

The capacity crowd in the Shed made their approval clear with roaring applause from “Quarter Chicken Dark” to “Attaboy,” peaking at the Bach sonata and the blindingly virtuosic “13:8.”

The most interesting question the concert raised was “where will Yo-Yo Ma turn next for a new confluence of musical cultures and styles?” This collaboration could certainly produce more music, and probably will, but it is Ma’s inquisitive, ingenious, and generous nature that has expanded the ears of his vast circle of admirers and brought ever more credence to the notion of music as THE universal language. That’s way more than 100 things going right – a massive Goat Rodeo!