No more introduction is needed than this: on Thursday night July 3 at Kaul Auditorium the world's (almost inarguably) greatest double bass player and one of its foremost mandolin stylists teamed up for a (mostly) two-man concert. Edgar Meyer and Mike Marshall delivered a program heavy on Americana in honor of our nation's holiday, and the product was every bit as good as one would expect.
Featuring a roving, constantly shifting set list--neither Marshall nor Meyer seemed entirely sure of what order they played their songs, nor indeed at times of what they actually played--these two roamed through old favorites and new original compositions. Opening with a hornpipe with scintillating mandolin over a peripatetic bass line, the duo warmed into it immediately and then really began to swing. Meyer displayed every trick in the book: pizzicato bass lines in which he slapped strings with his fingers for percussive effect, drawn out sawing with his bow, and despite the technical fireworks his balance with Marshall was perfect--it would've been so easy for him do drown out the delicate filigree from Marshall's instrument, but his sense of unity was perfect.
The first set featured their own tunes called Green Slime and Pickles, a rhythmic yet oddly free-form piece centered around a deep blues theme on the mandolin. Another piece featured melancholy, moto perpetuo bass motives that switched in color and character--arco, pizzicato, arco--Meyer switched back and forth in between phrases while Marshall played a clean, sparkling descant over the deeps of Meyer's themes, as the two wandered in what strange and far-flung modal shores, personifying the metaphor of music as journey.
They switched to another tune, Meyer swinging and honking at the top of the fingerboard in an extremely funky root motive. Rhythmic solidarity between the two were the watchwords of the evening, which made the side-trips into polyrhythms all the more enjoyable. Sitting there listening, I wondered what it would be like to attain such mastery over a medium as to have complete freedom to soar like an albatross over a shining sea. Lacking both the innate artistry and titanic discipline to achieve such heights, all I can do is dream indeed, but hearing a concert by virtuosi such as these was better than any dream.
In the second half, featuring more original compositions such as Flight of the Fly and Please Don't, they broke new ground, Meyer wailing away on rapidly shifting open fifths, like power chords on heavy metal guitar. They played a folk/Americana medley, with Whiskey Before Breakfast and The Middle Passage among the offerings. They were joined by Meyer's son George on the fiddle for Temperance Reel and other tunes. George Meyer and Marshall played some spectacularly precise and intricate doublings during this set. Marshall switched to the mandola for a tune called Looper, showing intricate melodic interplay between instruments as well as humrous stop tempos. They closed with an Appalachian-feeling tune called Early Morning, and finally with an unbelievably lively Bulgarian dance tune.
Chamber Music Northwest always brings incredible artists to Portland, but to say they outdid themselves last Thursday night would be an understatement. It was a joy to hear such artistry, and to see two such masters who still, after all is said and done, seem not to take themselves too seriously. It seemed that for them this music was about having fun and being alive, and if music isn't good for that then I quit.