Many classical music buffs know Fathom Events for its opera cinecasts, in which it broadcasts live performances of (say) the Metropolitan Opera into movie theaters across the country. Yesterday Fathom did something different, broadcasting a live performance of Yo-Yo Ma’s Goat Rodeo Sessions from the House of Blues in Boston. I went to a well-attended screening in New York, and came away extremely impressed by both the music and the production.
The Goat Rodeo group is actually a quartet of equals, and not just on paper. Yo-Yo Ma may be the matinee-idol name responsible for the bulk of album sales among classical fans, but his cello is just one instrument in a truly unique musical comity, and I don’t use the word “unique” lightly.
For the Goat Rodeo Sessions album, Ma teamed with violinist Stuart Duncan (who doubles on banjo and mandolin), bassist Edgar Meyer (who also plays piano), and mandolinist Chris Thile (of Nickel Creek and Punch Brothers, doubling on guitar, fiddle, and vocals), with a contribution from Crooked Still singer Aoife O’Donovan. The music is an extraordinary combination of virtuoso playing with a rootsy American sonic palette and melodic/harmonic vocabulary that’s accessible and appealing to fans of folk, bluegrass, and Americana. The rhythmic and harmonic complexity in many of the pieces will more than satisfy those hoping to be “blown away” by extreme musicianship, whether they’re bluegrass fans or classical mavens.
It doesn’t matter that Ma neither composes nor improvises. In addition to being the most popular and accomplished cellist of modern times, he’s a master facilitator, a crafter of people and music into projects that can extend and deepen our understanding of almost any musical tradition. Truth be told, he’s an impresario of sorts, though I suspect he’d deny the accusation. Duncan, Meyer, and Thile came up with the pieces here, but just as he did on his Obrigado Brazil and Soul of the Tango albums and elsewhere, Ma catalyzes something warm and understandable yet at the same time truly new.
The Boston concert showed off the band in excellent form. Viewing such high-energy precision playing in a live setting is a step up from listening to it on an album, on which, as we can’t help being aware, the musicians could have overdubbed or digitally corrected any flaws. During the cinecast, smoothly directed multi-camera coverage resulted in a nice balance of ensemble shots, flying fingers, and the joyful physicality of the players’ bodies and faces. In the clear and precise sound you could hear every note of Thile’s mandolin, even the highest plinks that sounded like tiny raindrops, as well as every swoop of Ma’s bow across the cello, and so on. It was truly a joy to see and hear.
I’m not aware of plans for any future Goat Rodeo Sessions cinecasts, but the concert was recorded for a future PBS broadcast, and of course the CD is readily available online.